Three years ago, Marco Pineda played much bigger than his size as a freshman at Estancia High. Pineda, then 4-foot-10, made sure no one pushed him around on the soccer field.
Size didn't matter to Pineda, who proved it as a defender with gritty play. The frosh-soph coach raved about Pineda to the head varsity coach, Robert Castellano. One day, Castellano came out to watch Pineda, before he walked away with one question.
"Could Pineda perform on the varsity level with his tiny size?" Castellano said.
He never found out the following season. Pineda didn't come out for the team as a sophomore, missing the spring and summer off-season programs.
Pineda missed a lot more, his father, Leonardo, the man he said he hasn't seen since second grade.
Pictures are all Pineda has of his dad, who lives in Mexico. The reason Pineda said he hasn't seen him in person is because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported his father, an undocumented immigrant.
Plans for Pineda to reunite with his father escalated in the spring of his ninth-grade year. Pineda lived with his mother, Albina, and the two mulled over the decision to move to the state of Michoacán to be with Leonardo.
"We had talked about moving for quite a while," Pineda said. "My mom left it up to me. I wanted to stay here. I've been here since I was like 1. Everyone here is a friend. I had everything here, except for my dad. I had a lot to get used to if we moved to Mexico.
"We talked to my dad on the phone. Overall, he said we had a better future here. He always tells me that I've made it this far and to not give up."
Pineda and his mom stayed in Costa Mesa. Pineda is glad they stayed put.
Pineda returned to the Eagles, and by his senior year, he no longer looked diminutive. He grew to 5-9, and with his play, the soccer team rose to new heights under Castellano this past season.
Pineda is the Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year in boys' soccer after he led Estancia (16-6-5) to the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs. On an injured left knee, Pineda pushed the program to its best run in 14 seasons.
"We haven't had a player like Marco who plugs up the whole middle the way he does in a really long time," said Castellano of his defensive midfielder, who earned All-CIF Southern Section Division 5 and first-team All-Orange Coast League honors after he finished with five goals and two assists. "Marco's not flashy, just strong-willed, and he was so important to the team. The three games he missed because of his bruised knee we lost our shape on the field and our leader.
"I sometimes wonder how much better he would have been if he played as a sophomore."
Pineda sat out his sophomore season, not because of lack of size, just confidence.
Castellano is an approachable coach, but he's a stickler about players participating in the off-season programs. He wants them to be committed and have structure. Since Pineda was a no-show in the off-season, he figured he stood no chance to make the team.
The story behind why Pineda didn't come out, him possibly leaving the country to live with his dad, is one he didn't have the courage to tell Castellano. Pineda did ask Castellano for one more shot, in hopes to resume soccer as a junior.
When Castellano saw Pineda again, he was 9 inches taller.
"I had to look up to him," Castellano said.
Castellano hasn't stopped looking up to Pineda. He admires his work ethic, which rubbed off on teammates.
Pineda credits his mother for showing him what hard work really is. Albina cleans houses for a living. There isn't a day that goes by that she doesn't remind her 18-year-old son that she wants him to pursue a college education and a good job after high school.
"She does this all for me, and it's hard on her. She has to pay all the bills and everything," said Pineda, who plans to work in the automotive industry after college.
Pineda said his father is a mechanic in Mexico. The two enjoy working on cars, almost as much as talking fútbol.
Sunday is the time Pineda gets to talk to his dad on the phone. While he cannot see his son, Leonardo can hear that his son has turned into a quality young man.
Below are the rest of the players on this year's Dream Team:
Corona del Mar
The senior center back proved to be the backbone of the Sea Kings' success. Damon anchored a defense that only allowed one goal per game and held 10 opponents scoreless, nine of which CdM won. The defense recorded five league shutouts. Damon received the Pacific Coast League Defensive MVP award.
The sophomore striker became the Eagles' most dangerous player with the ball, hurting teams with his speed. Pizarro finished with 11 goals and 13 assists, the latter ranked No. 3 in Orange County. He shared the Orange Coast League Offensive MVP award. Pizarro is a two-time Dream Team selection.
The junior center midfielder doubled his production from his standout sophomore season with the Sailors. With the top two scorers lost to graduation, Alcantara accounted for 12 goals and six assists, garnering the Sunset League Most Outstanding Offensive Player award. Alcantara is a two-time Dream Team selection.
Corona del Mar
The senior striker moved from the wing to up top and delivered for the Sea Kings with his playmaking ability. O'Connor led CdM to an unbeaten Pacific Coast League title, the first without a loss during Coach George Larsen's five seasons at the school. He produced 12 goals and seven assists.
The junior striker scored with the best of them. In only 19 matches, Sadeghi recorded 25 goals and 13 assists, both ranked No. 3 in Orange County. Sadeghi made the All-CIF Southern Section Division 6 and Academy League first team. He finished with a hat trick three times.
The senior midfielder turned it on during the Eagles' CIF Southern Section Division 5 semifinal playoff run. Cortes scored four goals, including two game-winners during the postseason. Cortes, who totaled seven goals and six assists, earned All-CIF Southern Section Division 5 and first-team All-Orange Coast League accolades.
Corona del Mar
The senior midfielder could play anywhere on the field and excel for the Sea Kings. Stimpson, a first-team All-Pacific Coast League member, helped CdM claim its third league title in five seasons under Coach George Larsen. Stimpson, bound for New York University, finished with two goals and five assists.
The senior midfielder is the most technically gifted player Robert Castellano has coached during his 15 seasons. Mendoza's vision, passing and left-footed shot allowed him at 5-foot-3 to control the midfield. He tallied three goals and nine assists, giving him All-CIF Southern Section Division 5 and first-team All-Orange Coast League honors.
Corona del Mar
The senior defensive midfielder played a vital role to the Sea Kings controlling much of the action. Premer earned first-team All-Pacific Coast League laurels after finishing with seven goals and one assist. Premer scored a goal in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.
The junior center back organized the Eagles in the back with his play and leadership. Monroy's presence made it difficult for the opposition to score, as Estancia only gave up 23 goals in 27 matches. Monroy, a second-team All-Orange Coast League pick, was like a second coach.
The sophomore goalkeeper led the Sailors to third place in the Sunset League and first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs for the second straight season. Negrete made 75 saves, and posted four shutouts and a 1.38 goals against average. He made the All-Sunset League second team.