It felt strange when Jose Mejia Sr. was not there during practice the first day, missed the presence of the old assistant coach in running laps and jumping in drills and sharing trademark wisdom.
Afterward, Jose Mejia Jr., the boys’ soccer coach at St. Genevieve High, rallied his team with a heavy heart and told them the news – his father had been diagnosed with bladder cancer. There were four stages of chemotherapy ahead.
Faces fell and tears flowed, a team of mostly seniors trying to grapple with the reality that a beloved mentor might not return. Mejia Jr. was the coach, his father was the ‘professor’.
“It kind of broke our hearts,” senior Beto Chavez said.
If Mejia Sr. spoke, you listened. You were listening if you were Chavez, who feels that the assistant coach has taken him under his wing since his freshman year, taught him to use his feet and be mentally strong. You listened when you Mejia Jr. who thought that as long as he was lucky enough to have a relationship with his father, he should follow his advice.
And with no voice left, it brought a team to a small Panorama City campus with 525 kids from a school that hadn’t won a CIF title in any sport in over 40 years.
“We saw it as a motive to do even more, not only for ourselves, but also for our coach and his father,” Chavez said.
You won’t see a lavish parade or elaborate fanfare for a Southern Section Division 7 championship, Mejia Jr. knows. But after a 6-20-2 record in the previous two seasons, the St. Genevieve boys made it all the way to the playoffs – Mejia Sr. made it all the way to the playoffs. made four games back – and beat Oxford Academy 3-1 on Saturday for a title.
His father, Mejia Jr. said, has always been mentally strong. So when the two hugged after the victory, Mejia Sr. dry. His son was the one who cried.
“If I never win a championship again, I’ll be fine… I’m done,” said Mejia Jr. “This was the best. It could not be better.”
It may be Mejia Sr.’s last year of coaching, the team is still fighting for more with a 3-1 victory over Reseda on Tuesday to advance to the second round of the State Division 5 tournament. In mid-March after the season, Mejia Jr. said, his father will have to have a procedure to remove his bladder.
Before the playoffs began, the team gathered for a speech by Spanish-speaking Mejia Sr., who begged his son to interpret.
“Who is the King of the Jungle?” asked Mejia Sr., his son remembered interpreters.
“The lion,” the team replied.
“Why is he the king?” asked Mejia Sr.
They became silent. Was he the fastest, the older Mejia asked? No. The strongest? No.
Finally, one of the boys understood. It was because of the lion mentality, they replied.
“If you think like a lion, if your mindset is strong,” Mejia Jr. recalls. remembers his father’s interpretation, “it doesn’t matter if the other team is faster or stronger.”
“If your mentality is strong,” he continued, “you will become kings.”