Jessi Mendez, 17, had a different problem. He was feeling "very confused by life — lost, to put it bluntly" during this, his senior year. He'd been questioning his faith, his ambitions, whether he could really find a way to go to college. The chess team made him feel part of something.
"It's like we're the start. There's the little kids behind us. We have to show what kids from places like Mendota can do if they only get an opportunity."
Most of the members of the high school team have been with French since they were in third grade.
Chrispen Reyes, 16, is the new guy. He is also the most focused. After a loss, he rolls out his vinyl chess board on his bedroom floor and replays the game move-for-move.
When he was placed in foster care a year ago, his one request was to live in Mendota, a few miles from the farming community where he grew up.
"I'd seen their team at chess tournaments, and I wanted to play for Mr. French," he said. "I want to be a chess champion. I want to be known."
On the night in early April when the team bus returned from the state tournament in Santa Clara, the players tumbled out the doors screaming and tossing around trophies. Lozano hugged everyone in sight. Chrispen stood off to the side.
"Chrispen doesn't let many people in," Lozano said. "He's hurt. You can just see that. But there's also something about him where you go, 'Man, there's a really good kid.'"
Chrispen didn't tell his foster mother, Gloria Marquez, about the championship. The first she heard of it was when his social worker called and said Chrispen had been lying about being on the chess team. After all, he didn't appear in a team photo that ran in the local newspaper. He'd been at a track meet that day, it turned out.
Marquez sat down with Chrispen.
"M'ijo, this is a big, big thing," she said. "You should have told me."
She wanted to celebrate, but Chrispen said no.
Marquez thinks she understands. When he was placed in foster care, he and his five younger half siblings were separated. Chrispen hopes to reunite them someday.
"He doesn't want to enjoy things until he can share them with his family," Marquez said.
French chooses the team's captains, based not on ability but on what they need to learn. He chose current captain Milton Arroyo because he focused too much on himself. Now, French considers the high school senior his right-hand man, aware of the needs of the whole team.
Next year's captain is Chrispen.
"Chrispen has to learn that he needs other people," French said, "and they need him."
On tournament days, Lozano and his wife, Gloria, a migrant-education teacher who has taught most every child in town over the years, get up at 6 a.m. to make tortillas, fry chorizo and potatoes, and wrap them into burritos. They arrive with breakfast as team members emerge from their first games.
"We know they don't have money for food," Lozano said. "And we're there for them when they lose to say: 'Did you do your best? Did you put your heart into it? Then we're proud of you.'"
They used to be the team's only boosters. "But now the whole city is excited. And it's not just Mendota, it's all these farm towns," Lozano said.
In the bigger chess world, Mendota's championship is nothing striking. But for people who live in the world of packing houses and field labor, the town's success in a game of intellect and imagination has resonated.
"We teach our kids, 'Never give up on playing the game.' Put the pieces back on the board and look for the opportunity you didn't see before," Lozano said. "These kids remind people what can happen when you don't know how to quit."
On a recent Friday, French and the high school team are back in their trailer. There's a demo board on the wall, and French is playing against the class. They shout out their moves in unison until Chrispen leaps from his seat to make a move. He puts French's king in check and forces French to take the team's bishop — a move that will set him up for defeat.
"Eat it. Eat it," the class chants.
"Make thy move," Chrispen tells French.
"Guys, you have beat the old man," French admits, laughing.
When French arrived in Mendota, he weighed 360 pounds and doctors were debating whether he needed a heart transplant. Many days he came to class with a walking stick and an oxygen mask.
As he grew closer to the students, he decided he wanted to have energy to keep up with them. He had gastric bypass surgery, lost 156 pounds and now works out regularly. Without the extra weight, French's enlarged heart doesn't have to work as hard, though it remains fragile.
He missed the first day of the state tournament. He was in the emergency room with an infection.
Milton texted updates. When French learned that Luis Castillo, an "A" student with a near-novice chess ranking, had beaten a much-higher-rated player, French whooped so loud that nurses came running.