BIG SUCCESS : Mission Viejo's Joe-Max Moore Plays Head and Shoulders Above the Rest

Times Staff Writer

Joe-Max Moore of Mission Viejo High School is one of the best soccer players in Orange County. But Moore, a senior midfielder, would be difficult to pick out on the practice field for those who don't know him.

"It's that kid over there with thick thighs corded with muscle, reminiscent of Pele, right?"

No.

"Well, is he that guy, the fast one?"

Well, no.

Think of the quintessential Southern California kid brother, too young to drive, standing at the bus stop, body board in tow, waiting to catch a bus to catch some waves.

That's Moore.

He is not exactly scrawny, but to call him compact would give him credit for more brawn than he actually possesses.

But the 5-foot-7, 130-pound Moore is definitely a keeper who gives goalkeepers fits. His 24 goals and 10 assists have helped the Mission Viejo soccer team advance to the Southern Section 3-A semifinals for the first time. Mission Viejo (23-1-3) plays host to St. Francis (17-1-1) at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

"He really is small, but in the two years he has been playing here, he has never been hurt," Mission Viejo Coach Cal Foster said. "He's like a rubber ball. He just bounces right back up off the ground and keeps playing."

He said Moore is the best player he has seen in his three seasons as the Diablos' coach. He and many of his colleagues see Moore--the South Coast League player of the year this season--as "one of the few players around who could go to a Division I college and start despite his size."

And he does not compensate for his stature with blazing speed.

Moore is fast, but at least five of his teammates at Mission Viejo are faster. What sets him head and shoulders above bigger competition is his knowledge of the game, Foster said.

"His skills are extraordinary," Foster said. "The way he can control a ball, his traps, his moves with it, the way he dribbles, his touch on the shot . . . he knows what other people are going to do. He is thinking two to three moves ahead."

His lack of size does not faze Moore.

"It doesn't affect my game," he said.

"High school people try to take you down a lot more, but I don't really feel I get knocked around or off the ball that much."

Others agree. Southern Methodist University and UCLA, to name a couple of schools, are recruiting him. And he has been the starting center midfielder for two seasons on the Western Regional 18 1/2-and-under team, a squad of 20 elite athletes selected from 14 Western states. He has traveled to Brazil with another all-star team three times, and spent three months on his own playing in Yugoslavia. He plays club soccer for the North Huntington Beach Untouchables.

While his size has never been a problem on the soccer field, it has been cause for pause off it.

"I've been pulled over twice by police thinking I wasn't old enough to drive," he said.

His equanimity about his size comes from his dad, Carl--a former triple A baseball catcher.

Carl was a 5-foot-4, 123-pound wrestler his senior year in high school. By the time he was 19, he had grown 6 inches and gained 50 pounds.

"For this boy to have kept up with all the big boys while being way behind in (physical) maturation is unbelievable," Carl said.

"I've always just told him that one day everyone will be the same again. If you were fast as a little boy, you will be fast as an adult," Carl said. "Some of these kids grow up a little earlier than others."

Said Joe-Max: "I don't even shave yet, but I know I'm going to get bigger. That's for sure. My dad's 5-10 and I'll be bigger than he is."

Moore did most of his growing up in Tulsa, Okla., where he tried several sports. He was a state wrestling champion at 39 pounds in second grade, Moore said. "It's big there. As soon as you get to a certain weight in Oklahoma, you start wrestling," Moore said.

But he did not like it.

He played a little football, but he was too small.

He took a swing at T-ball and was a star, said his mother, Corey. That developed into a stint with baseball before high school, but he eventually gave that up because the season conflicted with soccer.

"He picked up the soccer ball when he was 3 years old and never has put it down," his mother said. "He chose soccer. You pick up something when you're really young like these Olympic players do, and if you just live with it, that becomes the thing you excel in."

"This kid was scoring six goals a game when he was a little boy," Carl Moore said. "When he had to make a choice to play one or the other, he chose soccer."

Said Joe-Max: "I like (soccer) more than all the other games I've played. It's the most popular sport in the world, so it has got to be fun."

Soccer is one of the main reasons his two biggest fans, his parents, moved his freshman year to California, where the weather accommodates soccer year-round.

He started for Woodbridge's varsity soccer team his freshman and sophomore seasons. Woodbridge advanced to the quarterfinals in the playoffs his sophomore season, but lost key players to graduation for his junior season.

Moore knew Mission Viejo's midfielder, Andy Wortrich, from club soccer competition between his sophomore and juniors years. Wortrich told Moore that Mission Viejo was going to have a good soccer team, so Moore moved into Mission Viejo's district.

The move has been good for Moore and the Diablos, who also qualified for the playoffs last season.

"One thing great about soccer is it's a team sport and they have all blended together as a team," Foster said. "There is no bickering or arguing among them. . . . When it comes to goal scoring, there is nobody who is selfish. They don't care who scores just as long as the team scores."

Of the 16 field players, 15 have scored. Wortrich, who is 5-feet-5 and second in scoring with 13 goals and 14 assists, was surprised that Moore showed up at tryouts, but he welcomed him.

"I knew he was a good player and had some of the best skills I had seen, and he was as small as I was so we had something in common."

Moore not only fit right in with his teammates, but he has adopted the California life style. He even catches some waves in San Clemente in his spare time.

"He came from Oklahoma, but he's from Southern California now," Wortrich said.

And his size? Well, his parents have had doctors test him for his growth potential.

"He has a lot more growing to do," his dad said. "He is going to be a lot bigger boy than anybody could imagine, and when that happens, the rest of the soccer world has a problem."

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