The longest summer of Esaul Mendoza's life wouldn't have been nearly so long if getting into college was as simple as scoring goals. But Mendoza, who scored a county-high 47 goals last season for Estancia High, found the Vanguard University admissions department tougher to beat than any goalkeeper he faced in high school.
With the first class just two days away and the Vanguard soccer season already in progress, Orange County's reigning scoring champion was ready to accept defeat. After finally overcoming immigration problems two weeks earlier, Mendoza was told in late August that his class standing at Estancia was not good enough for admittance to Vanguard.
"When I heard that," Mendoza said, "I went right over to OCC [Orange Coast College] and talked to the coach about playing there."
But just as Mendoza was registering for classes at OCC, he got word that Vanguard's undergraduate admissions department had misinterpreted his transcripts and that he was admitted to Vanguard.
Mendoza knew he was supposed to feel a great sense of relief and accomplishment upon hearing the news that he would be playing soccer at a four-year university. But all he felt was anger and bitterness.
"I was so stressed out that when I finally did get it worked out, I almost didn't even want to go [to Vanguard]," he said. "I didn't really feel like celebrating. I knew I was going by myself. I wanted my teammates to be there with me."
Mendoza and his Estancia teammates, goalkeeper Hilario Arriaga and midfielder Irving Islas, were recruited by Vanguard Coach Dave McLeish. But the plan unraveled when Arriaga and Islas could not show documentation proving they were in the country legally.
Arriaga has landed at OCC, where he is the team's starting goalkeeper and has helped the Pirates to a 7-1-4 start. Islas plans to return to Mexico in December and hopes to obtain a student visa so he can enroll at Vanguard next fall.
Mendoza's chances of playing at Vanguard this season were better than Arriaga's or Islas' because his father filed citizenship paperwork four years ago.
"The [INS] told us we would have a green card within three months," said Mendoza, who was born in Mexico City and immigrated to the U.S. 12 years ago.
And that was good enough for Vanguard.
"We had documentation in our file that it was OK to admit him," said Jessica Morales, director of undergraduate admissions at Vanguard.
Once Mendoza was officially enrolled, McLeish awarded him a half scholarship to the small, Christian school in Costa Mesa, where tuition is $13,310 a year. The rest of Mendoza's tuition is being paid by a private sponsor in the community.
By the time he actually joined his new teammates, Mendoza had missed two games and two weeks of practice. McLeish immediately inserted Mendoza into the starting lineup at forward alongside Diego Gomi, a senior from Uruguay.
It didn't take Mendoza long to realize college soccer is nothing like the high school game.
"It's more difficult," he said. "Everyone is bigger than me."
The 5-foot-6, 150-pound Mendoza was quicker than most of his high school defenders and he could outsmart them, but he has had a more difficult time breaking free on the NAIA level. In seven games, he has scored two goals in 34 shots.
"I've missed a couple goals that I wouldn't normally miss," he said. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I have to get back on track."
Said McLeish: "He hasn't scored that many goals, but he's been dangerous in every game. He's taking pressure off Diego just by being there."
Ricardo Minaya, Mendoza's club coach last year with the Mission Viejo Pateadores, said he has an idea why Mendoza isn't scoring more.
"They play long ball [up to their forwards] at Vanguard, but that's not Esaul's strong game," Minaya said. "It's facing and drilling his opponent one on one.
"He wants to continue making news, but he's not finding himself in that spotlight. It's a mental thing he must get through. He's a good player. He'll find himself."
In Vanguard's first Golden State Athletic Conference game against Concordia, Mendoza showed his potential. Early in the second half, he took a deflected free kick, juked a defender and beat the goalkeeper in Vanguard's 1-0 victory.
McLeish was happy to have the victory, but even happier for Mendoza.
"If we don't lose him to a pro league," McLeish said, "we'll keep him for four years, get him an education and a good start in life."
That's all Mendoza ever wanted.