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KYUSUNG GONG, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
JSerra freshman forward Isabella D'Aquila is the Lions' biggest scoring threat, scoring 20 goals and tallying 11 assists in 15 games this season.

Freshman D'Aquila leading the way for JSerra soccer team

STAFF WRITER

She was, perhaps, Greg and Matt Baker’s best-kept secret.

Having worked with the Bakers for the past two-plus seasons in club, JSerra freshman forward Isabella D’Aquila is now taking Orange County high school soccer by storm, one goal – and sometimes more than that – at a time.

Few teams have found an answer for her. Seemingly, no one saw her coming – except the Bakers.

“We know Issy and we know she’s capable of playing against older kids and scoring goals and being impactful,” said Greg Baker, JSerra’s head coach. “We think she can lead even as a freshman.”

A player with nine years of experience, D’Aquila has shown no signs of necessary adjustment to the high school level. The Trinity League is considered one of the toughest in the county, but in her last three league contests, D’Aquila has tallied a goal and an assist in each.

Currently, she ranks fourth in the county with 20 goals. She doesn’t shy away from higher-ranking teams either, scoring twice against a tough El Toro squad and three times against annual Freeway League contender Troy.

“I play to the competition I’m going against,” D’Aquila said. “I expected to come out and do good, but I didn’t think I’d be scoring 19 goals. I was coming out to work hard and get whatever I could.”

D’Aquila has a nose for the ball and, by virtue of youth, never runs low on energy. She’s a hard charger, unafraid of defenders challenging her for possession while she pushes forward.

Against Santa Margarita last month, D’Aquila fought off such a defender on a breakaway as the goalkeeper was simultaneously charging forward.

She tapped a shot that bounced off the goalkeeper, collected the rebound and used her left foot to blast the ball to the back of the net, giving JSerra a 3-0 lead early in the second half.

Such sights have become commonplace for the Bakers. Only three times in 15 games has D’Aquila been held without a goal and only twice has she been held pointless. In both matches, against Harvard-Westlake and Santa Margarita, the Lions were shut out.

“She does a lot of training, she’s a hard worker, she knows where her downfalls are and we work on them all the time,” Greg Baker said. “She’s with us every day in high school.”

A look at D’Aquila’s surroundings and its clear she was destined to be an athlete.

The second of Tom and Gina D’Aquila’s three daughters, Isabella was born into an athletic family. Tom played baseball in the Baltimore Orioles organization, while Gina works as a running coach with Off The Ball Training in Orange.

D’Aquila’s older sister, Cheyenne, was a star defender at El Modena High, twice earning first-team all-league honors before playing a season at Cerritos College. Isabella D’Aquila travels from Orange to play soccer at JSerra.

Isabella’s love of the game was sparked by watching Cheyenne. The two would spend hours working a soccer ball in the backyard, Isabella working tirelessly to get the ball around her older sister.

“She rotated from center back to forward between club and high school games,” Isabella D’Aquila said, “so I’d go at her as a forward.”

Gina D’Aquila has always reminded her daughter that someone out there is willing to work harder to reach their peak. If Isabella wanted to do the same, she would have to push herself harder.

She’s taken that to heart. Her motor never stops running on the pitch, and her ability to kick into that extra gear has left many a defender scratching their head.

“Whenever you get to high-level players, the one thing that will start to separate, at some level, fatigue and fitness will start to play a factor,” Greg Baker said. “She’s more fit than anyone she plays against.”

D’Aquila joined her first club team, Canyon FC, when she was 9 years old. She said that’s when she began realizing her potential with soccer.

It was two years ago that D’Aquila joined Greg and Matt Baker’s club team with the SoCal Blues. She’s thrived, leading the team and the ECNL in goals scored in the 2015-16 season.

“I noticed that I was performing at a higher level than some of the other players,” D’Aquila said. “I just wanted to find the right team to where they would all challenge me and I’d have coaches that will help me get to that higher level.”

With the Blues, D’Aquila has won two regional championships and finished runner-up in the U.S. Youth National Championships last year after falling in a penalty-kick shootout.

D’Aquila led the Blues with three goals in the four-match tournament and was named to the Elite 11 team. The freshman said that competition with the Blues has eased her transition into high school soccer.

It helps that her coaches remain the same at JSerra.

“They’re all about their team,” D’Aquila said. “They’ll do anything for us and we work our butts off. That’s how we repay them every day.”

Higher level is a phrase often used in D’Aquila’s vocabulary. It serves as a reminder that there’s always something to improve upon.

D’Aquila didn’t waste any time making an impact during her freshman season at JSerra, scoring three goals in the team’s season opener against Temescal Canyon. The Lions won, 6-0.

The following day, she had a hand in all five JSerra goals spanning two matches, with a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win over El Dorado and two goals and an assist in a 3-3 draw against El Toro.

“She’s become a goal-scorer,” Greg Baker said. “Her finishing technique when she first came was what lacked. She worked to get there and then she would hit it to the keeper, or hit it wide. Now she’s hitting her targets. (She’s) creating chances out of nothing.”

Now, seeing D’Aquila’s name on the score sheet is commonplace. She complements junior forward Julie Doyle and picks her spots well when it comes to breaking from defenders for the net.

When competition gets tougher, D’Aquila only seems to get better. In the Trinity League, she’s tallied three goals and three assists in four matches.

Santa Margarita has been the only team to shut her out in league play so far. However, in the second game between schools, D’Aquila assisted the Lions’ first goal in the fourth minute and powered in a second goal early in the second half.

On three separate occasions, D’Aquila has scored three times in the same game. She’s added a pair of two-goal games to her résumé and has assisted in 11 of JSerra’s 15 games.

Her abilties have led to a handful of national club invites where she’s spent time up top and as a defender. The transition to the back line showed her how others try to defend her when she’s attacking.

“It was eye-opening to see how hard my defense works and to go from attacking and scoring goals to stopping goals and creating,” she said.

A secret no more, D’Aquila is being tested as the Lions play a pair of games against county top-ranked Mater Dei this week.

With another pair of peak performances, JSerra could be looking at league title hopes, but D’Aquila will bring in the same mindset, rooted in her since she began training years ago.

“I’m pretty sure we can come out and perform, we just have to play hard and bring out everything we have,” she said. “(We have to) play at our highest level – play how we always play.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-2247 or npercy@ocregister.com


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