Comfort Zone

David Conley/New University

Natalia Ledezma nonchalantly goes about her business. Relaxed, chill, she’s the antonym of uptight. Makeup is for special occasions, UGG boots and sweat pants are the norm, and soccer is just a game. Her coach, Scott Juniper, thinks it’s all a façade.

The sophomore forward from La Mirada is a competitor who downplays her accomplishments. A prodigy recruited by UC Los Angeles as a sophomore in high school, Ledezma takes everything in stride.

“She’ll be a leader, but she’ll do it in her own way,” Juniper said. “She’s incredibly crafty. She’s got such an understanding of the game that’s going on around her, she reads the game. Her insight is way ahead of most of the players. She’s a very, very smart player. We ask her to play different roles and she says, ‘Yeah, whatever you need.’”

Ledezma started playing at age four. She’s been on club teams, travelled to Spain for tournaments, and missed quite a bit of family time throughout the years. When it came time to choose a university, she wouldn’t dare leave Southern California. East coast winters and Texas summers aren’t her cup of tea.

Southern California is the place for Ledezma. She’s near her family and in her comfort zone. The psychology and social behavior major is contemplating a switch to cognitive psychology or criminology. Just four quarters into college, she has plenty of time.

This season was Ledezma’s first at UC Irvine after transferring from UCLA. She came to Irvine to take over the forward position vacated by All-American Tanya Taylor upon graduation. Taylor scored 11 goals and tallied 12 assists in 2010, while wearing No. 3. Her 11 goals placed her seventh in school history at the time, while the 12 assists were a new school record. In addition, her 34 points were second best in the annals of UCI history, behind Nicole Bucciarelli’s 37 in 1996.

Ledezma committed early to UCLA, but when she arrived last fall, she realized that the school wasn’t a right fit. She dreaded the 30-minute walks to class and couldn’t handle the competitive nature of the soccer team. Her parents, who thought UCLA would be a perfect fit for her, weren’t pleased with her decision to transfer to UCI after just one year.

“[UCLA] didn’t fit my personality and my personality is really relaxed and calm,” she said. “I think the environment there was really competitive, not just on the field and on the team, even in school.  I knew that I could handle it, but I didn’t think that I wanted to handle that much competitiveness.”

“The team complimented me better [here]. At UCLA, it’s cutthroat. Whereas here, people accept [it] if somebody’s better than them.”

Upon transferring, Ledezma requested to wear No. 3.

“You’re in luck,” Juniper told her. “Tanya Taylor just graduated and 3 is available.”

“[Taking Taylor’s place didn’t] fluster Tal one way or another,” Juniper said. “They’re very, very different players. Tanya Taylor did things that Natalia cannot do and vice versa.”

Ledezma, as a freshman at La Mirada High School, competed against Taylor when she was a senior at Sunny Hills.

“I heard about Tanya’s awards and everything,” Ledezma said. “[There were] definitely big shoes to fill.”

Juniper and teammates refer to Ledezma as “Tal,” yet the sophomore stands just 5-feet-2-inches tall. And when it comes to those big shoes that Ledezma had to fill, well, let’s just say that she grew out of them.

In her first season at UCI, Ledezma scored 12 goals, passing Taylor and posting the fifth-best total in school history. She also facilitated eight assists — sixth best in UCI’s record books. Her 32 points were two less than Taylor’s All-American performance in 2010, and it was the fifth most for an Irvine player in a single season.

“She’s made the other players around her better,” Juniper said. “She’s an unselfish player when she needs to be and she’s single-minded at other times when she needs to be. And I think there’s still a lot to come from her.”

“I don’t really pay attention to [statistics],” Ledezma added. “I’m humble and all these goals and points honestly mean nothing to me. Scott [Juniper] always says individual achievements on the team don’t really mean [as much as] a team effort.”

Ledezma has been called “emotionless.” It could be because of her tendency in conversation to overuse the word “whatever,” or the fact that missing shots and losing isn’t worth losing sleep to her.

“There [are] so much more important things than soccer,” Ledezma said. “When I’m on the field if I don’t score, I don’t put my head down; if we lose, I don’t cry. It’s just another loss, another shot that I didn’t make. That’s my mentality.

“What some people see as important,” she said, “may not be important to me. Family, friends, school and my career are pretty much what [are] most important to me. If I was to show emotion, it would be about those things. I’ve got a carefree mentality about stuff.”

That doesn’t go for all the Anteaters. On Nov. 11, UC Irvine’s season ended when they lost 5-3 in penalty kicks to the University of San Diego Toreros in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Having played four years of college soccer, several of the seniors broke down after the loss. After advancing to the Sweet 16 the year prior, they had savored prominence, but 2011 wasn’t meant to be. Ledezma, like always, remained calm.

When it came time to select volunteers for the penalty kicks in the playoff game, Ledezma wasn’t able to take a shot. She had been battling plantar fasciitis and blistered feet for weeks.

But prior to facing USD, Ledezma shared her fear of missing the crucial shot, an experience senior Judy Christopher endured as the lone player to miss a penalty kick in the team’s heartbreaking loss to the Toreros.

“[At the end of a game,] I could have the biggest open shot, wide open and no keeper and I’d rather pass the ball to someone else than take it myself,” Ledezma said. “I’m kind of more afraid of failure than a lot of people, so if I have an open shot and I miss that, I’d rather give it to someone else and hopefully they make it and if they don’t, then it’s kind of on them.”

It’s questionable whether Ledezma would have had the guts to have taken the penalty kick if she had been healthy. Due to the injury, she hobbled through the final three games of the season and wasn’t able to score or contribute an assist in any of the contests.

With fellow forward Lexi Kopf, a senior who scored 11 goals in 2011, graduating, Ledezma will undoubtedly be the scoring leader next year, but what remains to be seen is whether the young lady they call “Tal” will step out of her comfort zone, face her fears, and take the big kick in 2012.

For now, Ledezma is enjoying her time in Irvine. She takes strolls through Aldrich Park between classes — it’s calming to her. And with soccer officially out of season, long evening runs suit her serene personality.

“My parents weren’t too thrilled about me leaving UCLA, she said, “but I think now it’s really grown on them and they can see that I’m really happy here.”