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Figueroa Sparkles in Rough : Soccer: She’s a standout for Santiago, which was outscored, 71-2, in league last year and has one victory this season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone thinking about getting in the way of Azucena Figueroa on the soccer field might also want to think about ducking.

Here’s an example: Figueroa, Santiago’s captain and center halfback, scored a goal against Bolsa Grande last season. The goalkeeper said she had stopped the shot before it crossed the goal line.

That got Figueroa mad and then she almost crossed the line.

“I had a ball of mud in my hand and I was going to throw it at the goalie,” Figueroa recalled with a grin.

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Fortunately for all concerned, Figueroa’s teammates persuaded her to drop the mud ball. Their arguments were certainly helped when Figueroa’s goal was allowed by the referee.

Santiago goals were rare last season--the Cavaliers scored three in 16 games--so it’s not hard to understand why Figueroa was a bit defensive. It turned out to be her only goal of the season.

This year, the going is still rough for Santiago. Unlike most teams in this soccer-rich county, Santiago has no players who play club soccer. Few Cavaliers had played any organized soccer before the school formed the program last season.

Santiago did have a breakthrough early this month, defeating Bolsa Grande, 4-1, for the program’s first victory, but the Cavaliers are 1-8, 1-2 in the Garden Grove League.

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Figueroa’s only experience with a team was in a Santa Ana youth league when she was about 12, but she long has had the desire to play. Her father, Pedro, coaches a men’s team in a Santa Ana league and she remembers kicking around the ball during halftime.

There also were solo sessions in the back yard, kicking against the fence. When her family lived near Mater Dei High, Figueroa would spend some time kicking it with friends there.

But she longed for more competition. As a sophomore at Santiago, she considered joining the boys’ soccer team and lobbied teachers to start a team for the girls. When such a team was started, Figueroa was one of the first to sign up.

It hasn’t been easy. About 40 girls joined the inaugural team but Coach Dave Merito had to resign before the league season because he was moving to New Zealand. Assistant Diane Lenning took over and the Cavaliers were outscored, 71-2, in league, including a county-record 17-0 loss to Pacifica.

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“We didn’t win any games, but the goal was to keep the team together playing to the end,” Lenning said. “They felt a great sense of accomplishment doing that because it was so rough.”

Even so, Figueroa thought about not playing her senior season because she didn’t like being the target of jokes about losing. She decided not to quit out of love for the game and loyalty to Lenning, and she says she has no regrets.

“I’ve always loved the game,” Figueroa said. “But now I enjoy it more because we have a better team this year--sort of.”

With seven goals, the Cavaliers have more than doubled last season’s output. Figueroa has five of the goals, including three in the victory over Bolsa Grande.

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“She is a well-rounded soccer player,” Lenning said. “She has the thinking skills that go with soccer ability, and she has the desire to play well and to win.”

Figueroa, 18, also has the desire to improve her game, but joining a club team is out of the question. “Those teams cost money, don’t they?” she asked. She earns spending money and helps her family by working at the food court of MainPlace mall in Santa Ana.

Figueroa is thinking about joining the team at Rancho Santiago College next season, but meanwhile she is having fun playing high school soccer.

As the Cavaliers’ primary offensive weapon, she gets bumped and pushed quite a bit. But, as you might expect, she isn’t backing down at all.

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“I’ll just go over and drop them if that’s what it takes,” she said.


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