Ramirez leads Costa Mesa's breakthrough

In his fourth season with the Costa Mesa High boys' soccer team, Franco Ramirez is playing for his third coach. That much turnover can make it hard for an experienced player to connect with someone new in charge.

For Ramirez and his latest coach, Amos Hernandez, that hasn't been the case at all.

The two relate to each other, respect each other and are fond of each other, on and off the field. They know what's necessary to succeed in a sport the Mustangs haven't achieved much in the past 10 seasons.

Without a strong work ethic, both agree the team stands no chance. Ramirez didn't learn how to work hard by playing soccer. Hernandez didn't learn by coaching soccer.

They thank their mothers for setting the right example.

While Ramirez and Hernandez are on the field on a daily basis with their team, their mothers clean houses. Carmen Ramirez and Mercedes Flores clean houses for a living and they're the moms who push their sons to strive.

"It inspires me because that's [hard work, cleaning houses]," said Ramirez, adding that his mother immigrated to this country from Mexico to give her son a better opportunity.

The vision is the same one Flores had for Hernandez.

The player and coach's family stories are similar. They use what their mothers have instilled in them to fuel Costa Mesa in practice and in matches. It's working so far, as the Mustangs are unbeaten in Orange Coast League play at 1-0-2.

They are competing unlike any other team Ramirez said he has been a part of at the school. The potential to do well, Ramirez said, has been there in his previous three seasons.

The new coach figured out what was missing.

"I just thought that they lacked organization, that they lacked a little bit of leadership, somebody to really bring the program together," said Hernandez, whose coaching background is mostly on the club level, with the Newport Mesa Soccer Club. "One of the things that I wanted to do was, where I played high school, [at Lakewood from 1996-99], the program that I came from, it was an organized program, it had a proper booster club, the parents were involved, and that's what I want to bring to the table here."

Signs of the program heading in the right direction are evident. The Mustangs have a senior to lead in the field of play and someone to lead from the sideline.

The start to Hernandez's debut as a varsity head coach wasn't ideal. The team lost its first three matches, never scoring a goal. Then after Costa Mesa won for the first time, it lost four allowable contests because it was on probation.

Four nonleague matches is all the Mustangs played before last week's Orange Coast League opener.

Through it all, Hernandez has stayed positive. He knew what he was getting into after the Mustangs were placed on probation for piling up too many red cards last season, violating a CIF Southern Section rule.

Last season was one Ramirez would like to forget because there was no discipline, but he cannot, he said. He worked hard to get ready for that junior season after he suffered a serious ankle injury as a sophomore.

All the work Ramirez did to get back, the 5 a.m. workout sessions to strengthen his left ankle and the physical therapy, didn't result in many wins in league for the Mustangs. They finished 3-6-1, good for fifth place, and missed the playoffs.

"My junior year was pretty bad [under Coach Juan Becerra], because I was coached [by Alex] Cordoba [my first] two years [at Costa Mesa]," said Ramirez, who was sidelined for much of Cordoba's final season with the Mustangs in 2010-11, when they reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years.

"I had to get used to new coaching. Becerra, as a person, he's a great guy. But as a coach, he was really young, 22 years old. During practices, it was pretty much players coaching players."

In the off-season, Ramirez had someone to talk to, his brother, Omar, about went wrong last season.

Ramirez and Omar always seem to be together, in their home, or on the field. Soccer unites them.

"We're always talking about what we can do better," Ramirez said.

The two brothers are roommates and teammates. They also play the same positions, striker and midfield.

Omar is more of a goofball at practice. As the oldest, Ramirez has a little more sense of urgency.

This season is his final one with the Mustangs' varsity program. He is one of two captains, an honor bestowed on players who can lead a team.

One way to motivate a team is by being vocal, something Ramirez has never set out to do. It just happened last week, him giving a speech to teammates before the team's first league contest.

The Mustangs hadn't played much up to this point. Ramirez didn't know what he was going to say to the team. The words just came out.

The match that day was so important to Ramirez that he needed to express himself.

"I don't think they knew what Estancia really was," said Ramirez, referring to the Mustangs' opponent in the Battle for the Bell rivalry series. "Estancia always sees us as easy, 'All right. We'll just play these guys and we'll win, and we'll win next time.' I felt like I needed to tell my players what this meant to us, [to] the youngest guys [on the team] and the first-timers on varsity. It was pretty motivating. I motivated myself."

It is one thing to speak up and another to back up those words. Ramirez delivered the message for the Mustangs and then won them over with his play right away.

In the second minute, Ramirez found the back of the net. The goal was enough for the Mustangs to upset the Eagles, 1-0, and give them just their second win against their rivals in seven seasons.

"When we realized we could beat our rival, we said, 'This is our year!'" Ramirez said.

It just might be the Mustangs' season. Two days after beating Estancia, Ramirez recorded another goal, helping the Mustangs tie Godinez, 2-2, in a league match.

On Wednesday, Ramirez led Costa Mesa to a tie against defending league champion Saddleback. He didn't record a goal, and neither did the Roadrunners, ranked No. 9 in the CIF Southern Section Division 5 poll, but it was still a good result for the Mustangs.

"In the 10-11 years of coaching at the youth level, I've only met a handful of kids that are as disciplined, as professional, as hard working as he is," Hernandez said of Ramirez, who plans to attend San Francisco State University and study kinesiology. "To me, he's one of the most impressive young men I have ever met."


Franco Ramirez

Born: April 20, 1995

Hometown: Costa Mesa

Height: 5-foot-7

Weight: 140 pounds

Sport: Boys' soccer

Year: Senior

Coach: Amos Hernandez

Favorite food: Mexican enchiladas

Favorite athletic moment: "Scoring the only goal against [the Eagles in the Orange Coast League opener last week]."

Week in review: Ramirez scored a goal in the Mustangs' 1-0 win against Estancia in an Orange Coast League opener and he recorded another goal in a 2-2 tie against Godinez.


Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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