It's more important than any championship banner hanging on a wall. It's more valuable than any MVP trophy glittering in a glass display case. It's more telling than a win-loss record on a coach's resume.
On Friday, when Downey High has its graduation ceremony at Long Beach Veterans Stadium, 13 members of the boys' soccer team will receive their diplomas, then head off to four-year colleges.
Many of them started high school not even thinking about college. Their coach, Marvin Mires, a Loyola High grad, could have just focused on winning and getting them to pass the minimum academic requirement to play soccer, a 2.0 grade-point average.
Instead, every year he raised the requirement to play. It went from 2.3 the first year to 2.5, 2.7 and 3.0. Players grumbled at times; others moped when stuck on the sideline.
"He wouldn't play the starters," Jesus Diaz said. "He didn't care if we lost or won. He wanted good grades."
Said Ivan Donato: "Honestly, college wasn't a big thing for me. … It's mainly because of him I stayed focused on school.
"It was hard, but every time and every practice, there's people who made grades and there's those who didn't. Some were bummed out, but it motivated them and kept them going."
Juan Lopez, who is headed to Cal State Los Angeles, is another Downey player who said he didn't take school seriously until he met Mires.
"I guess he wanted the best for us," Lopez said of his coach. "I believe you should set high goals for yourself. If you don't succeed, at least you tried. There was effort put into it. It made you go as far as you could. I really appreciated it."
Downey has qualified for the Southern Section Division 1 soccer playoffs each of the last four years, but Mires will know after watching his seniors graduate on Friday what their lasting achievement is.
"I feel from freshman year we gave them a foundation and template what to do to get to college," he said. "For some, it was something they actually didn't think they could achieve. I check every single grading period, and even if they aren't doing well in the off season I put them on probation."
Darlin Ramirez, headed to Cal State Los Angeles, came from Colombia six years ago after his grandmother died.
"He was very strict about the grades," he said of Coach Mires. "You don't have the grades, you can't play. The lesson is to work hard and not to give up. It was hard for some players."
By raising expectations and challenging his players, Mires helped them succeed. It's the most important lesson of all.
Teenagers want goals. Even when things get tough, if they have someone pushing them, supporting them, encouraging them, they can make it.
"Everybody just gave it everything they could," Diaz said. "The lesson I learned is if something knocks you down, you can't stay down. You have to get up. And if you start something, you have to finish it. I was going to be a good student either way, but this made me push harder."
Donato's parents came from Mexico and hardly speak English, but he's going to be the first person in his family to attend college.
Coach "taught us to stay focused, have discipline and control in every part of our life," Donato said. "He also had us have goals, bigger goals and bigger dreams. He motivated us to dream higher."
Donato will attend
Most of the boys won't be playing soccer in college, but the sport they played and the coach they met made a difference in their lives.
"He helped me be a leader, not just in school or with teammates, but in life," Donato said.