CHATSWORTH — For Murray County High School soccer player Jose Ruiz, this season has been far different from the previous one.
Despite all the differences for him personally, the biggest one concerns his team.
The Indians (14-3) host Atlanta’s Lovett (6-6-3) at 6 tonight at Murray Field in the opening round of the Class 2A state playoffs. Murray County is the Region 7 runner-up, while Lovett is the No. 3 seed from Region 6.
During Thursday’s practice for the big game, Ruiz commanded the center midfield position during an 11-on-11 intrasquad scrimmage. One year ago, he would have been in a different position, right midfield, with a different role and skill set.
But the junior has changed his game in accordance to the team’s needs. The graduation of Marcus Lopez left a major void in Murray County’s 4-4-2 formation, which relies on two center midfielders to direct the team’s possession and attack.
“It took some time getting used to,” Ruiz said. “I always used to play on the outside.”
Previously counted on to set up others to score, Ruiz had to develop even better passing skills to go along with a new-found scoring ability. In 2012, Ruiz scored three times. This season, he leads the Indians with 29 goals.
“He can create for himself,” Murray County coach Marco Burgueno said. “He’s a very good ball handler. That’s one of his skills, but he has gotten better at shooting. He takes the free kicks and has scored four or five off those.”
But Ruiz is used to things changing, both on and off the field.
Originally from Ellijay, his home flooded when he was a second-grader and he and his family moved to Chatsworth. He didn’t play organized soccer during elementary school but gave the sport a try in sixth grade. He didn’t make the team that year at Bagley Middle School, but in seventh grade at Gladden Middle School he earned a spot and hasn’t experienced failure in that regard since.
He has started on varsity since his freshman season at Murray County, following in the footsteps of brother Enrique Ruiz, who was a four-year starter for the Indians.
“At first, I struggled,” Ruiz said. “Now I have confidence.”
The Indians are also seeing quite a bit of change from last year to this year. At this time in 2012, there were no soccer practices. Murray County’s season was done when May started. The Indians finished with a winning record, but they were fifth in Region 7-3A — one spot shy of a place in the state playoffs.
“I think last year we were more talented overall,” Burgueno said. “It was my first year and we were in a tougher classification. ... I think now the players work better with each other.”
This season, in a new classification and with new region rivals, the Indians finished second in their region and will make Burgueno’s second year leading the program one worth remembering. The Indians finished the regular season with a 2-1 win against Calhoun, which already had the league title clinched and at the time was ranked second in eurosportscoreboard.com’s Class 2A poll.
Lovett could be just as big a challenge. The Lions are ranked third in Class 2A and reached the Class 2A state semifinals last season. The Indians are ranked seventh.
“Typically, you get it a little easier in the first round,” Burgueno said. “I told them it’ll be tough, but we have to work hard and accomplish what we can given this opportunity, even though it’ll be a difficult opponent.
“Our last win was big — against Calhoun — so we have that momentum, but it’ll be a tough first-round draw.”
Burgueno said Lovett’s goal-scoring potential comes mostly from set plays — corner kicks, free kicks and deep throw-ins.
“We are short and skinny,” he said. “That’s pretty much been our problem every game. So if there’s a team with height that can play well-placed balls, that can be a problem for us.”