This has been an extremely successful winter season at Millikan High because a bunch of first-year captains have quickly stepped up to lead by example.
One of those Rams captains is senior Azalia Salazar, who has helped her girls’ soccer team retake its position atop the Moore League standings. However, Salazar was close to never being a Millikan soccer player.
“Soccer is the only sport I’ve really ever known,” Salazar said. “But for lack of a better word, I sucked when I was younger.”
Salazar is the oldest of three soccer playing daughters born in Long Beach, and their dad, Armando Salazar, has been a club coach for almost their entire lives. The small but naturally skilled Azalia quickly progressed though the AYSO teams before taking the jump to an elite club level at the age of 9.
That’s when she got a rude awakening that changed her life forever.
“My parents and I had a sit-down conversation when I was 11 or 12 years old and I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Salazar said. “I just came from an AYSO team where I was pretty much the best on the team, coming up to a club team where there are girls who are better than me. A lot better. I couldn’t keep up. I realized I couldn’t keep up.”
Salazar recalled that she wasn’t sure how to react when her parents asked if she wanted to keep playing soccer, or find a new extracurricular activity.
“I decided and told them ‘I want to see how far I can go,'” she said. “I want to do everything in my power to get myself above or close to level these other girls are at’.”
The Salazars decided that she would increase her training to an extra day of strength and conditioning, and an extra day of ball skills training on top of the two regular days of club training. That’s more than half of the week on the soccer field.
“At the end of three months I was back to being one of the best and I finally felt like I was where I wanted and needed to be,” Salazar said. “I felt like I was thriving.”
The confident Salazar kept getting called up to new and better teams for top clubs like Strikers and Slammers. She even traveled internationally with one team and visited the Manchester United facility in England.
A dedicated soccer training program at KILFIT Athletics Gym in Bell Gardens also helped Salazar gain the strength needed to be an effective forward despite her small stature.
“I definitely don’t wish I was a bigger player,” Salazar said. “I believe the biggest things come in the smallest packages. I mean, look at Messi. He’s a perfect example of a small player with a big field presence. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be.”
Salazar said watching a lot of soccer with her dad like the USA women’s national team, the Mexican national team and the Premier League helped increase her soccer IQ.
“It’s just always been about athleticism,” Salazar said of improving her natural skills. “Technically working on my weaker foot, shielding the ball away from the defender, learning to navigate through tougher situations… Because at that time I was moving into higher levels where you don’t have as much time on the ball. Learning how to get the ball quickly and find and release quickly, that’s what I was working on.”
Her rapid improvement had Salazar tabbed as one of the top prospects coming to the Moore League four years ago. However, a clerical paperwork error landed Salazar at Lakewood High instead of her desired Millikan destination. Instead of pouting and just continuing to play club soccer, Salazar won a spot on the Lancers varsity squad as a freshman.
When that year ended, Salazar still wanted to go to Millikan.
“I liked (Lakewood) but I just always heard about Millikan being one of the best in the Moore League and I wanted to be a part of that and be a part of that name,” Salazar said. “And my dad and (Millikan coach Tino Nunez) have been coaching against each other in club for years, so I’m familiar with him.”
Nunez and Millikan have been familiar with winning in the last two years after grabbing a historic league title last season. The Rams started this season last month with a pair of home wins over top challengers Long Beach Poly and Wilson. Salazar scored a goal and assisted on the game winners of both contests. She now has a team-high six assists to go with five goals in nine games played.
“She’s different,” Nunez said. “She is dynamic and you can tell she’s been trained and wired to see things that are beyond the basics. I want creative players like that, especially in the final third, to help create chances.”
Salazar said she wants to continue playing soccer at the next level, but is more interested in preparing to study in the medical field.
“I just want to be in the business of helping people,” Salazar said.
It’s clear now that the sliding doors of local soccer have put Salazar in a perfect position to do exactly that for Millikan.