As Dan Rydell said in Sports Night, “They say it’s always calmest before the storm. That’s not true. I’m a serious sailor. It isn’t calm before the storm. Stuff happens.”
Leo Corona knows what “stuff” means. The Cabrillo senior is in the midst of an emotionally turbulent year, but he woke up last Saturday ready to have the best day of his life.
Corona was going be in the starting lineup for the most important soccer match in the history Cabrillo High— the CIF Southern Section Division 2 semifinal at Riverside Poly— and he was going to do it in front of his grandmother, Maria, who had never seen him play in high school.
Corona’s grandfather, Jose Raul Corrales, was shot and killed a few blocks from Cabrillo last October. He was the victim of a drive-by shooting while watering his front yard.
“It’s been hard,” Corona said. “This team is the only thing keeping me here and keeping me going.”
But Corona got a text message while on the team bus on the way to the game saying that his grandmother, who has been sick for months, wouldn’t be able to make the trip.
“I wanted her to go because it could’ve been my last game, but I know she’s weak and can barely walk so I understood why she couldn’t,” Corona said.
With a heavy heart, Corona warmed up to start the semifinal in his normal attacking position like he has done all season. But as soon as the first whistle blew, he knew something was off.
“From my first touch (of the ball) I wasn’t playing well,” Corona said. “I was lost just thinking about everything.”
Corona was pulled off the field twice after uncharacteristic mistakes, and the dejected senior sat on the track about 10 yards from the Cabrillo bench as the scoreless first half came to a close.
When Corona put his head down his mom, Suzy, came down out of the grandstands. She somehow bypassed security and got to the far sideline where she consoled her son, and gave him some welcome news.
“She told me my grandma was in the stands,” Corona said. “It all hit me then… I felt bad because I was playing bad. She was weak and traveled all this way to sit in the cold.”
There was a moment during halftime when it looked like Corona would be stuck sitting alone on the track under the weight of his emotions for the rest of the game. That’s precisely when the Cabrillo squad stopped the meeting to rally around their teammate.
“They all came over with the coaches and told me to pick my head up and never give up,” Corona said. “I had to keep playing.”
“If he said he was good I was never not going to put him back into the game,” Cabrillo coach Pat Noyes said. “He’s earned it.”
“When I first got back onto the field again in the second half I heard (my mom) scream and that’s when I saw my grandmother (in the stands),” Corona said. “So I went in and just played. When I got the ball I didn’t think about anything but who to pass it to and where to go.”
The shift was palpable, and momentum began to swing towards Cabrillo.
With a clear mind and a full heart, Corona played inspired soccer in the second half. He was quick to every 50/50 ball and never let his emotions boil over when things got physical.
At the hour mark, his pass from midfield found Arnold Giron for the opening goal. The two hooked up again three minutes later for the second goal, and the Jaguars went on to win 3-1 to send Cabrillo to the first CIF championship game in school history.
When Corona saw his family after the game they all happily embraced, and his grandmother cracked a joke.
“She messes around a lot, so she joked with me, ‘Why did I come if you were going to play bad’,” Corona said. “She knew I played well. It was the best feeling. I was proud. I wanted to cry.”
Corona also found Noyes for a hug during the postgame celebration, and said that he wouldn’t have survived the last year without his team. READ MORE about how Noyes built his program at Cabrillo.
“They knew what was going on when I stopped coming to practice for awhile,” Corona said. “When I came back they accepted me the same. They understood, and they brought me in. They’re my family too.”
Soccer got Corona back on campus, and back into the classroom, where he’s struggled in the past. He’s hoping that the sport he loves will give him another chance to make both of his families proud again on Saturday.