Letterman jackets are considered so retro that some high school athletes are hesitant to be seen wearing one. But don't tell that to L.A. Cathedral soccer standout Axel Mendez, who proudly walks around campus wearing his jacket filled with patches testifying to accomplishments, from being All-Southern Section to being a scholar-athlete.
It's part of a high school sports experience that he refuses to abandon at a time when other elite players in the Southern California soccer world are choosing a different path.
In the last few years, top male players have been disappearing from the high school ranks to play in an Academy League that has the endorsement of U.S. Soccer.
Mendez also has been part of the Academy program that trains 10 months out of the year, but he made it clear he was not going to let it affect his loyalty to Cathedral.
"I really just wanted to play high school," he said. "I saw the competitiveness and how fun it is to represent your school and the pride."
He's set to sign a letter of intent with UC Santa Barbara next month. Though two of his club teammates who are also headed to Santa Barbara chose not to play for their high school team, Mendez couldn't be happier playing for a Phantoms team that might be the top squad in Southern California for any division.
Cathedral (15-1-1) is ranked No. 1 in Southern Section Division 4 and has won two prestigious tournaments, including a win over Northern California power Concord De La Salle. The school has never won a soccer title, and that's motivation enough for Mendez.
"He's a very skillful player with great vision," Coach Arturo Lopez said of the 5-foot-7 senior midfielder. "He has good control of the ball and can dribble anything he wants on his foot."
It's quite amusing watching Cathedral players standing in a small circle before practice to engage in a little game of trying to keep a soccer ball from hitting the ground as they manipulate it with their feet. It tests their coordination, concentration and focus. Mendez doesn't disappoint. The ball becomes an extension of his feet. You can sense his passion for soccer.
"I see soccer like basketball," he said. "I like it when people juke. I like dribbling. I like having the ball at my feet. As long as the ball is at my feet, I know what I'm capable of doing. I enjoy assists. I'd rather assist a goal than get a goal myself, because it gives me a better feeling, a satisfaction where you know you're not selfish."
He has 11 goals and 15 assists. He has been helped by a strong group of six juniors in the starting lineup, led by Elmer Guerra Jr., Saul Reyes and goalie Kris Guerra.
There are some strong teams in soccer this season. Los Angeles Loyola, San Clemente and Anaheim Servite are the teams to beat in Division 1. Fullerton is ranked No. 1 in Division 2 and Crescenta Valley is No. 1 in Division 3. In girls' soccer, Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos is No. 1 in Division 1.
Mendez and others choosing to play for their high school teams should be praised for their loyalty, but they also understand what they'd be missing if they weren't participating.
"The playoff atmosphere, the rivalries, all the little things that come with it," Mendez said. "It's about trying to achieve something higher than what others have achieved before."