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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Diamond in the Rough

Hueneme's Mijares Faces Long Odds in her Pursuit of College Softball Scholarship

April 04, 2001|PAIGE A. LEECH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — The disbelief is evident in Erica Mijares' innocent brown eyes, written all over her youthful face and shy, silver-toothed smile.

Yet the way Mijares swings a bat and fields groundballs at third base, the Hueneme High senior appears worthy of a college softball scholarship.

"She has the means to play in the Pac 10," said Coach Nichole Victoria, a former UCLA player.

But Mijares, whose background is in baseball, never planned for college, never dreamed about it and never had an adult help prepare her for it.

Until now. Only now might be too late.

*

Mijares has been on a road far less traveled than a typical high school softball standout.

Her parents don't have the time or money to help Mijares make the two-hour drive to Orange County to practice with an elite travel team.

Because she has never played in high-profile national tournaments, like Victoria did throughout high school, Mijares has gone largely unnoticed by college recruiters.

She's never experienced the camaraderie of boarding a plane with teammates for an out-of-state tournament. She's never received a standard college recruiting letter praising her talent.

But make no mistake, she is worthy of that kind of attention.

Mijares, who is batting a region-best .607 with 13 runs batted in, has simply been out of the loop.

Unlike many parents who devote their time and money to help their daughters earn scholarships, Enrique and Maria Mijares, who immigrated from Mexico in 1977, have focused on working to support a family of five living in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in south Oxnard.

Erica said her parents have often tried to dissuade her from playing softball so she could get a job.

"They think I'm wasting my time," Erica said.

But her parents don't force the issue and say they try to support Erica.

"We go [to games] whenever we can," Maria said through an interpreter. "My husband gets home late from work. I work at the hospital, sometimes overtime."

Victoria said she rarely sees Erica's parents at games. But after three years at Hueneme, the coach is beginning to understand the time constraints on working-class families.

"It's difficult for me because I had all the support in the world," said Victoria, who earned a scholarship out of Camarillo High.

"It's one extreme to the other, so I can't imagine. I know it hurts her not to have that support."

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It was only recently when Victoria talked to Barb Jordan, an assistant at Cal State Northridge, that any college coach showed an interest in recruiting Mijares.

Now Victoria is scrambling to get Mijares' academics in order.

"I think she had a couple of difficult years [in school], so we're working on it to see where she's at [academically]," Victoria said.

Mijares, who has a 2.5 grade-point average and has not taken the SAT, said she would blame only herself if she doesn't qualify academically for a four-year college.

"It's my fault," she said. "I wasn't thinking about school."

With the help of administrators and counselors, Victoria is on a crusade to steer Mijares toward higher education.

"I would love to get her out of here and get her to a four-year college, have her graduate and do the All-American thing," Victoria said.

"I would love for her to have that experience."

Enrique, a high school graduate from Santa Cruz de Guadalupe in the state of Durango, has trouble relating to the college experience.

"I never played sports. I never had the time for them," he said. "I've worked in the fields since I was young. I had to work to help my family. There was no other way to survive."

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Mijares' high school softball career nearly ended three years ago.

She quit Hueneme's team as a freshman, upset because she wasn't having fun and because coaches and teammates seemed disinterested in serious softball. Instead, she joined a park and recreation team.

The following year, Mijares heard a former UCLA player was taking over the Hueneme program, prompting her to check out the softball team after her basketball season ended.

Not knowing that Mijares quit the varsity team as freshman, Victoria placed her on the junior varsity.

"Then I got a look at her and realized how good she was," Victoria said. "She lasted on JV maybe half a day."

Victoria has marveled at Mijares' talent and ability ever since. Mijares played baseball with boys in Little League from age 6 to 12.

"She's a much better player than I ever was at her age," Victoria said. "It's just amazing. I tell her, 'You are so good.' She knows she's good, but she doesn't know what her talent can do for her at this point."

It isn't for lack of trying on Victoria's part.

At first, Victoria might just as well have been mentoring a wall. But about a year ago, after Mijares made a few errors in a game, there was a turning point.

"I just pinpointed her and went right at her," Victoria said. "I told her, 'You don't know how good you are and it's so sad that you don't know how good you are and how good you could be if you just gave it a little more effort. You're so afraid of success.' "

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