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Canoga Park soccer player a team hero for more than just his skill

He's a hefty, baby-faced teenager, a head taller than his teammates, and the anchor of a high school soccer team that won a city championship this month.

Watching him on the field this week, I found it hard to believe that this time last year Canoga Park High goalie Mauricio Garcia was battling leukemia.

The cancer sidelined him in the fall of 2012 as Mauricio was preparing for soccer tryouts. He was front-runner for the goalie spot, but he'd been struggling during tough workouts.

One day he showed up in Coach Jake Gwin's office, lifted his shirt and asked the coach about the big purple bruises that had begun showing up on his torso. "I said he needed to see a doctor, immediately," Gwin said.

Four days later, Mauricio was diagnosed with a form of leukemia that's difficult to treat. He spent almost all of his sophomore year as a patient at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

"It was a very, very bad time for our family," his mother, Flora DeLeon, told me. Her son was aching to play soccer. She was just praying he wouldn't die. God delivered on both counts.

"Right now," she said, "doing soccer is the very best thing for him."

On the field, Mauricio, 17, has nerves of steel — a good thing in a goalkeeper, whose every move is scrutinized because any single miss or save can win or lose a game.

"The pressure, the anxiety ... he seems to love it," his coach said. "He keeps coming through for us in pressure situations, making incredible saves."

I guess stopping a soccer ball isn't so scary when you've battled and beaten cancer.

::

It's the most nerve-wracking part of a youth soccer match — that "shootout" period after overtime when a tie game is decided by free kicks: simply shooter versus goalie.

That is where Mauricio shines. In last weekend's game for the city championship in his team's division, he not only made the winning save as goalie, but launched the kick that clinched the title for his team.

It's hard to find players eager to take such a risk when the moment is so unforgiving and the stakes are so high.

"When you ask around, 'Who wants to take a penalty kick?' you might get a few kids who do, but most you have to talk into it," said Coach Gwin. "Mauricio comes over before I even ask, says 'I'm taking the [final] kick.'"

He drilled it past the goalie and into the box, then collapsed to his knees while his teammates mobbed him on the field.

Mauricio started playing soccer as an 8-year-old in El Salvador, where his cousin was a member of the national squad. His family immigrated to the San Fernando Valley when Mauricio was in middle school. He wasn't much of a prospect then.

Even in ninth grade, he was too small to play, Gwin recalled. "He was short, he was chubby ... the kind of kid that was always picked on."

Now he's 6 foot 3 and 200 pounds, and no one pushes him around.

But it's not just his size that marks him as a leader; it's his talent, his passion, his knowledge of the game, his spirit on and off the field. "It's not just that he gets better and better," Gwin said. "He gets hungrier and hungrier to be great."

That might have something to do with all that he's been through. "There was an empty feeling for him, and for us, last year," Gwin said. "I think he's making up for that this year, showing he can lead this team."

Mauricio doesn't like to talk about his illness. He turned down a television station's request to do a feature on him. At Tuesday's game, he ambled off whenever I headed his way to talk.

"He doesn't like to bring it up," senior teammate Omar Solarzano said. "He just likes to be a goalie."

But his teammates haven't forgotten. His sudden disappearance from last year's roster unsettled the squad. They stumbled through an eight-game losing streak before turning the season around and making it to the state championship match.

"We think about him going through leukemia, about his miracle recovery ... it's like, anything is possible," Omar said. "When we see him out there on the field, he inspires everybody to keep going, to fight to the end. So we give 100% and never give up."

::

Mauricio can be conspicuously intense. I could hear him from the stands on Tuesday, yelling commands at his teammates, in English and Spanish. He's become a favorite of the Canoga Park crowd. They chant his nickname — "Chorizo! Chorizo!" — whenever he touches the ball.

"Last season, we had really good players, too," said Omar. "But our outcome was better this year.... We didn't lose at all this season. He was a big reason for that."

Omar told me that on Wednesday — the day before Canoga Park's season ended in a 2-1 loss in a state playoff match against a tough team from Simi Valley's Royal High.

The teams were tied 1 to 1 at the end of the game; Royal won by scoring first in overtime on a hard low kick that Mauricio couldn't block.

His teammates knew better than to try to console the goalie. As Royal players hugged and high-fived and celebratory music blared from the stadium's P.A. system, Mauricio launched an ice pack at the ground, threw a water bottle in frustration and walked slowly back to his team's bench with the goalie shirt pulled over his head.

It hid his face, but not his misery. It was a heartbreaking end to a glorious season. But the crowd was still behind Chorizo.

As he headed toward the team bus, a man on the sidelines called out: "You'll be back next year, mijo."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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