Boys soccer: Multitalented Leng will help Eagles soar (w/video)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rincon Valley Christian senior James Leng, right, sings "Angel Eyes," while his voice coach Melinda Moreaux plays the piano on Tuesday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Rincon Valley Christian senior James Leng, right, sings “Angel Eyes,” while his voice coach Melinda Moreaux plays the piano on Tuesday. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Tor Benestad, coach of the Rincon Valley Christian boys soccer team, allows his players a high degree of autonomy on the field, and one of the kids who manages his back line is senior James Leng.

“He has the voice of a coach on the field,” Benestad said of Leng.

And what a powerful voice it is. Leng is a boy of many talents. One of them is singing. He is a gifted bass-baritone trained in opera, jazz vocals and Sinatra-style crooning. Leng takes weekly lessons from voice teacher Melinda Moreaux in Penngrove and is trying to widen his vocal range.

See photos of James in action

“James has just a wonderful voice,” said his father, Tony Leng, who sang and played guitar in rock bands in his native South Africa. “I sound like a guy who smokes lots of cigars and drinks lots of whiskey — and I do neither.”

To be fair, Tony sounded much better before damaging one of his vocal chords, mostly via improper singing technique and habits (another contributing factor was a rugby injury). It’s one reason he and wife, Esme, insist that James learns proper voice technique.

At 6-foot-4½, James also is one of the top small-school basketball players in the Redwood Empire, a returning All-Empire pick who can dominate a game inside. The senior has interests in graphic design, architecture and fashion design, too.

And, of course, soccer. Leng was a first-team all-NCL III pick as a junior, an honor that he will not be able to repeat in 2014. That’s because the Eagles have moved up to the NCL II. It will be a challenge for RVC, which is the smallest school in the league.

And yet the Eagles are hopeful. They return most of their top players from last year’s NCL III championship team, including Leng, senior sweeper Erik Fisher, senior forward Maxwell Cantrell and junior midfielder Jonathan Groothoff. RVC has also gotten a spark from a couple of kid-brother freshmen, midfielder Luke Groothoff and striker Robbie Leng, who scored seven goals in the Eagles’ first four games.

Benestad acknowledges his players’ talent, but insists the composure he gets from his four captains — Fisher, Cantrell, and the older Leng and Groothoff — is even more important.

“I read an article a long time ago that said soccer coaches are supposed be seen and not heard, and I’ve taken that to heart,” Benestad said. “I tell them, ‘Look, you’re my captains on the field.’ That’s our biggest asset right now. It’s like having four coaches play.”

Last year, the Eagles were able to outrun most opponents. They could send a long, skidding pass downfield knowing there was a pretty good chance one of their teammates would be the first guy to reach it. Benestad knew that might not fly against teams like Roseland Prep, Anderson Valley and St. Vincent, so RVC has been working on touch control and passing — what Leng calls “possession soccer.”

“This year we’re controlling the middle,” Benestad said. “I’ve never had a team that passed like this.”

RVC went 3-0 in the preseason before beginning league play with a 4-3 loss to a strong Calistoga team on Sept. 10. The Eagles are now 5-1.

Leng has played a big role in their success from his spot on the defense.

“It’s just a position I’ve always loved,” he said. “I can be slightly more physical, and you’re stopping people from getting what they want. I’m pretty communicative on the field, so I can tell people what to do. I love it. We’ve had a few shutouts so far. That’s a pretty great feeling.”

James has two older brothers in college — Nick at Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego and Thomas at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago — in addition to younger Robbie.

All of them were born in South Africa. The Lengs lived in Johannesburg until James was 3. He has been back to visit three or four times, most recently in May to help his grandmother move.

“The scenery and the landscape are so amazingly beautiful, and it’s such a relief to see so many types of animals,” James said. “It’s like visiting a zoo almost. It’s also a very unsafe place. That’s one of the many reasons we moved over here.”

In the years since the dismantling of apartheid, South African cities have been plagued by street crime. The Lengs had a close friend who was shot dead in what Tony called “more or less a random shooting incident.” Another close friend’s daughter was kidnapped and ransomed. Her family paid the ransom. The abductors killed her anyway.

“We loved the country, but there was a certain randomness to it that we were worried about,” Tony said.

So he took a job as a corporate headhunter in San Francisco and moved his family to Novato. Esme has home-schooled the boys, with an affiliation with Rincon Valley Christian that allows them to play sports. About a year-and-a-half ago, the Lengs bought a home on the outskirts of Petaluma.

James has so many interests that he is planning to take a gap year after high school, during which he will attend Santa Rosa JC and attempt to narrow down a field of study.

“He can draw amazingly well, and he has a wonderful voice,” Tony Leng said. “He has been blessed mightily. Our job is to make sure he keeps his feet on the ground and uses those talents in a way that doesn’t necessarily attract attention to himself, but helps those around him.”

Just like he does on the soccer field.