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Sticking Together

Bell Gardens has overcome long odds and today plays for a soccer title

March 06, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Little boys in the gritty neighborhoods of Bell Gardens start playing soccer about the time they learn to walk.

Groups of 4- and 5-year-olds convene in the streets for pickup games that last until dusk. Too young to join the city's youth leagues, they are not too young to dream.

Some day, if they're good enough, and keep their grades up, and can avoid the many pitfalls of streets near their homes that often turn mean at night, maybe, just maybe, they will be among the lucky ones who play for Bell Gardens High.

And how magical would that be for these players, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds? For 80 minutes at least, they might as well be sitting on top of the world.

Today at 1 p.m., the Lancers will play Anaheim Esperanza in the Southern Section Division I championship game at Cal State Fullerton. On these hardscrabble East Los Angeles streets, that's about as big as it gets.

"To me, soccer is everything," said senior sweeper Javier Delgadillo, who has lost a friend and a cousin in gang-related shootings during the last year. "I'm thankful that I have soccer to keep me away from all that."

Delgadillo moved to nearby Commerce recently and said he was afraid to visit the Bell Gardens street where he used to live.

"It's getting worse," he said. "The community is not that good. I only have time to play soccer."

Senior defender Fabian Mariscal comes from the type of blue-collar family typical in Bell Gardens.

His father loads trucks at a local warehouse, his mother takes care of the home and his older brother recently was promoted from the mailroom at a home loan company. Mariscal figured he would end up going to work as soon as he finished high school, but now he has aspirations to become the first college graduate in his family.

"If I didn't play soccer, I don't think I would go to college," Mariscal said. "I thought I would just work like the rest of my family."

His immediate plans are to attend Rio Hondo, a two-year college in Whittier.

"I'll be the first one to go to college," he said.

Success stories such as Mariscal is more important to Coach Orlando Brenes than any success his soccer team has on the field. But he's experienced plenty of that too.

Bell Gardens (19-4-3) has won 14 consecutive games and shut out 10 of its last 11 opponents, including all four in the playoffs.

For this program, that's business as usual.

The Lancers have won 18 league titles -- and never finished below second -- in the last 23 years. They won Southern Section titles in 1984, '91 and '94, though this is their first appearance in Division I -- the highest level of competition.

Brenes takes pride in encouraging the players to set high goals, pushing them to achieve on and off the field, and watching them develop into young men.

"You want to keep them goal oriented because there are so many obstacles these kids have to go through," Brenes said. "A high level of divorce, a bad economical situation at home, the streets outside, whatever. What we've done as a coaching staff is gotten them to believe in themselves. That's why we've done so well."

Building a successful program hasn't been easy at Bell Gardens. There is no booster club and because many of the players come from low-income families, the team must rely on fund-raisers such as car washes and candy sales to finance the season.

The field at Bell Gardens is a dirt lot with patches of grass. It is shared by five teams during soccer season: varsity boys and girls, junior varsity boys and girls and freshman boys. Football and track teams also use the field.

Advancing to the final this year is a special source of pride because the team had to go through Anaheim Servite, Redlands East Valley and Quartz Hill -- all of which have elite club-level players on the team.

Bell Gardens has no such players simply because most can't afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars it can cost to play for a club team.

"People say that Bell Gardens is not a good school, but we want to show them that we can be as good as anybody," Mariscal said. "Nobody thought we would make it this far. They said, 'Oh it's just Bell Gardens' and they kicked us aside."

The team this year does not have a superstar. Only Delgadillo is being recruited by Division I colleges. Its success comes from an uncanny togetherness and a desire fueled by its seemingly never-ending status as underdog.

"We don't have the biggest superstars, but everyone contributes," senior midfielder Frank Escobedo said. "We're not playing perfect, but we're giving our all."

The players move in unison like the space aliens from the old Space Invaders video game -- marching back and forth across the field, their spacing uniform. And when need be, they swarm like bees, each infused with the same scrappy attitude of overcoming the odds.

"To be very, very honest with you, they're not as good as [top-seeded La Verne] Damien and they're not as good as [Santa Ana] Mater Dei," said Quartz Hill Coach Tony Bruce, whose team lost, 3-0, to Bell Gardens in a semifinal.

"They play a kind of ugly game, if you will. But they are well-disciplined and they're effective in what they do."

What they hope to do today, of course, is win. To Brenes, a victory could bring much more than a trophy back to Bell Gardens. It could reiterate his philosophy that success is always possible.

Today, on a plush field only 40 miles -- but worlds apart -- from their homes, the players who have dreamed of such a moment for more than a decade finally get to live it.

"It's not just a game," Escobedo said. "There's a lot more to it."

More than anyone from outside of Bell Gardens could possibly know.

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