As a fourteen-year-old kid at Alisal High School in East Salinas, California, Adrian Serrato earned a spot on Alisal’s freshman basketball team. At the turn of his sophomore year, however, Adrian made a life-changing decision, a decision made on his own and out of his heart. He would forego basketball and instead tryout for the Alisal Soccer Team. From that point, Adrian never again played basketball.
Adrian was an excellent basketball player, too. In fact, he’s good at every sport in which he competes, for he is an athlete in the most accurate sense of he word. Adrian could’ve excelled in badminton, lacrosse, frisbee golf, or water polo, and he most likely would earned the league’s top honors. These sports would come easy to him, but Alisal doesn’t field teams in any of the sports. Instead, as soon as Alisal’s soccer season comes to an end, Adrian immediately transitions into the two other sports he loves. With a solid 3.2 GPA in tow, Adrian competes in varsity tennis, a sport he picked up as a sophomore, and track and field, another sport he picked up as a sophomore. As a tennis rookie, Adrian reached the league championships twp-years in a row. In track, he raced in the 100M and 200M events, winning more than a handful of heats. As a senior, he finished as one of the best sprinters in the league. He had no prior track experience. He had no prior tennis experience. Had it not been for the commitment the Alisal Soccer Team demands of its players, Adrian could’ve perhaps even played basketball and soccer concurrently. But Adrian committed himself to soccer, and his dedication to the sport has earned him much praise.
All of this is impressive, but it’s not the most impressive thing about Adrian. This story centers around Adrian’s character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. In addition to his athletic prowess, Adrian is also blessed with an abundance of character. Its origin is not hard to trace, as his mental and moral fortitude is likely a reflection of the mental and moral toughness possessed by his parents.
This past 2015-2016 season, the Alisal Trojans, competing in what is considered one of the most difficult soccer leagues in the nation, finished as the undefeated Gabilan League champions. For those not familiar with high school soccer, this must seem rather inconsequential, but even minimal research could help understand why this is significant. Watsonville High School competes in the same league. They, too, are a nationally ranked team, traveling the nation and competing in some the most prestigious tournaments in high school soccer. They have also won countless DI State Section Titles over the many years of their existence. Alvarez High School, one Alisal’s fiercest rivals, also competes in the same league. Alvarez is situated only three-miles from Alisal, in a modest part of the city decorated by track homes and trees. They are even within walking distance of a Starbucks. For geographical reference, Alisal is situated in the heart of East Salinas, an enclave of Salinas with the contemptible honor as being one of the most violent cities in the nation, per capita. There is no Starbucks. There are other tough teams in the league, and they would all like nothing better than to defeat Alisal. It hasn’t been easy for them. Ever since this super league was created four-years ago, Alisal has won three of the four league championships, two coming off undefeated seasons.
Fast forward to the end of the 2015-2016, season. Adrian was the unanimous coaches’ choice for Gabilan League MVP. He was named to the Monterey All-County First-Team, and he was named the The Californian All-County Player-of-the-Year. He made the front cover of the local newspaper, and he represented Alisal in the Monterey County All-Star Game. In short, it was a fine senior year for Adrian. With all the accolades and with still loads of untapped potential, Adrian was set to follow the paths of so many other soccer players in Salinas, players that ride into the sunset, content with the fleeting thrills of playing high school soccer. Deep down, though, Adrian wanted more. As his coach, I knew he deserved more.
With the help of Jazz Rodriguez, a salinas native and now Los Angeles transplant, a trip to an ID Camp at San Diego State was set-up for Adrian. Rodriguez has strong connections with many college coaches. The camp was set to take place just one week before Adrian would “Walk the Line” at Alisal to accept his high school diploma. As a bonus, we were able to arrange for our goalkeeper, Danny Lomeli, to join Adrian at the camp. Danny was also set to graduate. To make sure it was a go, I called the San Diego State Men’s Soccer Coach and relayed to him the potential I believed these kids possessed. He listened, not expecting much, and said he would await their arrival.
The first hurdle the boys face was finding a ride to San Diego. With a few days before the camp, a custodian at Alisal volunteered to drive them south. Then another hurdle. At the last minute, the ride fell through. On the Friday before the camp, the boys were still in East Salinas, bags packed and uncertain as to how they would get to San Diego. It was 3 p.m. Time was running out. Then Larry Correa came into the picture. Larry played goalkeeper for many formidable Alisal Teams during the years spanning from 2003-2006. He played along side Alisal legends such as Aldo Meza, Ramon and Varos Hernandez, Joel Guzman, German Lopez, Tony Meza, Jimbo, and David Estrada. Larry’s dad runs a business which provides transportation to people from Salinas to Tijuana. An arrangement was made, and both Adrian and Danny found themselves on the four o’clock van headed for TJ. They arrived in San Diego at 1 a.m., eight hours before the start of the camp.
Jazz arranged lodging for them with a friend of his. They slept on a dorm room floor at the University of California San Diego, a twenty-minute car ride from the State campus. Jazz picked them up that morning and dropped them off at SDSU. The boys began their work. After an early dinner, Jazz gave them a ride back to the dorm where they took their respective spots on the floor and slept as best they could. The next day was not so easy. They didn’t have a ride back to SDSU for the second day of camp. From Monterey, I racked my brain and worked the phone, trying to get these guys a ride. Finally, a friend of mine and San Diego native, George Shillinger, made arrangements with a friend of his. He was an Uber driver. Within minutes, the boys were experiencing their first Uber ride. George saved the day!
After the two-day camp was over, the boys got in the same van and returned to Salinas at 1 a.m. They had school the next day and could not miss, as it was the first day of graduation practice.
I, too, had school, and as I sat at my desk and logged-in of the day, I called the SDSU coach. I was nervous. I asked him if my assessment of the boys was off or on, whether he believed they could play at that level and if they were perhaps worthy of a scholarship. The news was good.
He began by saying that he did not expect much from the camp. The recruiting season was as good as over, and all the recruits had signed their letters of intent or were on their way to the campus as soon as their high school careers were through. “It’s like the game is 3-0, with twenty-minutes left in the game, Mark. It’s difficult to break into any team at this point,” the coach said. “But your guys, Mark! They tied it up. It’s 3-3, and the fact that I’m talking to my coaches right now trying to figure out a way to make this work for your guys says a lot about them,” he continued. “Danny was the best keeper in the camp, and this is the best keeper group I’ve had in all our camps!” “Adrian was the most dangerous player on the field. In the last 11 v 11 game, four goals were scored. Adrian scored two!” He went on and on about them, and he praised their talents.
As a coach, I couldn’t have been prouder, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that they had made the team, but the coach couldn’t go there. There were loose ends to tie and recruits were filing in. “If we can’t sign them, I will call any coach you want, and I will tell them that your boys are ready to go. I just won’t work for us right now.” This was fair, I thought, but before I ended the conversation with him, I need him to know one thing.
“Keep in mind, coach, as you make your decision, all that these boys had to do to get there. They rode in a van for almost nine-hours. They slept on a floor of stranger’s room. They performed the best of any of the players you brought in. They rode the van home and went to school the next day! This speaks to their character. You won’t find out about your new players’ character until after you’ve been with them for a while, maybe even after a few seasons, but with my boys, you already know what you’re getting, and they don’t even play for you. They did what they had to do to get to your school because they wanted it badly, for themselves. They got there and proved to you that they deserved a a chance. That’s character!” He acknowledged it, and the conversation ended.
Now, you know a little about Adrian’s character, but there’s more. As a coach, I have a high expectations for players. It’s not easy to impress me, but even I have been greatly impressed by Adrian’s abilities. Everyone marvels at his skill. It truly is breathtaking. However, despite seeing Adrian compete in many games, and despite being greatly impressed with all he does on the field, it is Adrian’s ability to put aside emotional heartache in order to perform at his highest levels.
You see Adrian’s dad works in agriculture. Soccer is a winter sport. This means that as soon as soccer season begins, Adrian’s father heads to Yuma where the agricultural season is on a different calendar. He has to go where the work is if he is to provide for Adrian and his mother and his family. Adrian’s dad has never seen Adrian play for Alisal. The league MVP, the All-County MVP, the All-Star has never had his dad in the stands rooting for him. His dad wasn’t there for Senior Night, where parents traditionally walk their sons down the red carpet for their senior recognition. And on the most special day–the day that stands above any soccer championship or special night–Graduation Day–Adrian’s father was hard at work in the fields. Yes, Adrian’s illustrious high school soccer career came to an end without his father ever having seen him play, and despite this heart-wrenching fact, Adrain has held his head high and has outperformed many of the best soccer player in the nation! He has done it with him mother’s support. She holds down the fort when Adrian’s dad is gone, and Adrian, for his part, helps his mom where he can.
I’m glad to have known Adrian, and I know we will be friends for the rest of our lives. He is a great soccer player, but he is an even greater young man. To do what he does, under the circumstances, is a testament to his drive, to his character, and to his mother.
The next time you feel unable to move on, think of Adrian. If you’re a coach and your players are saying, “I can’t!” tell them about Adrian. My wife and daughters know about Adrian, and I will make sure that every player I coach from this point on will know about Adrian.
Dedicated to: Ernesto Garcia, Christina Parker, Gloria Chaidez, Mio Nishimura, Janice Aliotti, Mario Aguiar, Michelle Frankel, Albert Mazurca, Jazz Rodriguez, George Shillinger, Aurelio Madrigal, Natalie Bernasconi, Lalo Garcia, and the many more people that have helped my kids to get to where they need to be. It is greatly appreciated, even though at times it doesn’t seem so. Your generosity is never forgotten.
Note: Adrian did not end up attending UCLA. He enrolled in Salinas’ local community college. UCLA and other universities passed on Adrian, mainly because he did not fit the physical profile of the players they choose. Therein lies the problem with American soccer.