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Vega is a driving force for Rams

Senior Tiffany Vega's influence is as strong off the field as on it.

On the field the Ridgewood sweeper is the team's defensive leader, spearheading a swift, solid unit that has notched six shutouts in support of first-year goalkeeper Nicole Smith this season.

When a teammate is out of position, when ground needs to be covered, when a foe needs to be marked or the ball covered, Vega goes to work.

Off the field she is the Rams' captain. Coach John Herig trusts his team leader so much he let her approve her teammates in the back: sophomore Heather Bertling to her left, senior Crystal Sercombe to her right, the junior Smith behind her in goal and sophomore stopper Nikki Buccellato in front of her.

A four-year starter, Vega will play a pivotal role if second-seeded Ridgewood (7-8-2) is to earn a return trip to the playoffs in this week's Class 4A, District 10 tournament at top-seeded Tarpon Springs.

But when has Vega, a three-year All-Sunshine Athletic Conference selection, not been pivotal to the Rams' fortunes?

"She's that much of a player that I feel confident in her decision about who she wants out there around her," Herig said. "She's the team captain this year because of her leadership, and a lot of it is between her and Nicole Smith, who stepped in at goalkeeper.

"They're like the heart and soul of our team."

When you're a defender it's hard to separate your accomplishments from your teammates. When Vega talks about her contributions, she can't talk about herself alone.

But this season the defense was almost alone.

Ridgewood's offense struggled early, scoring 14 goals in the first 14 games. The team hovered around .500. The defense had to step up in the face of that drought, on a team where only three players returned to their spots from last season, with a first-year keeper in goal.

That's how the backfield bonded.

"There was a lot of pressure," Vega said. "But I think the four of us, we kind of clicked. We clicked so well. Coach might tell you that I'm one of the best defenders, but honestly I couldn't do it by myself.

"My players help me out, and my girls know I have their backs. I can depend on my girls. We connect so well."

It wasn't easy. "We weren't even averaging a goal and a half a game," Herig said. That meant Vega had to take her share of the blame, too.

"She's a player, she takes criticism well," the coach said. "If you're losing and you're letting a lot of goals in, the criticism gets a little too close sometimes.

"But she's the reason we are in the games we are in."

Vega said the key was attitude.

"Even though we're not scoring goals, we just have to do what we've got to do," she said. "We've got to get the job done as much as we can and have each others' backs and never get down."

And who shaped that attitude?

"I think my biggest attribute is my mouth," Vega said. "It's definitely communication. I'm like the key player for communication.

"If you hear anyone yelling, it's me probably."

As Vega goes, so goes Ridgewood. Because the Rams' attack starts in the back, it starts with Vega, who is tied for the team lead with six assists. Sometimes she's too good back there.

"(Vega helps) us control the pace of the game," Herig said. "It becomes very important for us to build from the back, and if she has a great game you can bet the rest of the team is doing great.

"If she's having a bad game it does affect the rest of the team, because she's the last back. Sometimes Tiff will get it and have everyone stand around and watch her."

Herig and his Rams are eying a postseason turnaround, hoping to climb above .500, get into the district final and maybe upset Tarpon Springs, which swept Ridgewood 12-0 in two losses this season.

The Rams made it the postseason last season, losing their opener. This season Vega wants to finish her career in the playoffs. Deep in the playoffs.

"I think we'll probably go farther (than last year)," she said. "I think we have a good chance, even if we're second (in the district.)

"We're just going to go in there and try and see what we can do."

Senior sweeper Tiffany Vega has led Ridgewood to six shutouts in support of its first-year goalkeeper. Vega, a three-year All-Sunshine Athletic Conference selection, is tied for the team lead with six assists.