Prep boys' soccer: Wasatch's Espinoza has a lot on his plate, but he's OK with it
Adversity has had a serious go at Alex Espinoza.
But the Wasatch senior midfielder doesn't let the past impact the way he commands a soccer field for 80 minutes each game. He is the one, that player who finally delivered a Class 3A state championship to the halls of the Heber City High School when he scored the lone goal in the 2011 title game at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The path to becoming a state champion as a sophomore and eventually one of the most tantalizing players in Utah high school soccer has certainly been filled with hardship.
As an incoming freshman prospect, Espinoza failed a geography class. His teacher was Wasatch coach Dawain Wheatley.
"Part of his legacy is understanding what it's like not to play," said Wheatley, whose lone state championship in 23 years of coaching the Wasps was delivered on the right foot of Espinoza.
The minuscule midfield maestro has grown accustomed to being one of the best players on the field, but the tiny kid with the incredible vision and touch and crazy black curly hair knows how important it is to play the game he's loved for as long as he can remember.
He scored 21 goals and dished out 19 assists during his banner sophomore season. He has 17 goals and 16 assists with two regular-season games remaining and Wasatch sitting at 14-0.
Espinoza approached Wheatley last week and told his coach he wanted to break his own school record for assists in a season. The most assists tallied by one player in a season was 21, set by an Alta player in 1990, according to the Utah High School Activities Association records book.
"I've always been that type of player who likes to look good but also helps make others look good," he said.
It's hard to take your eyes off Espinoza when he has the appropriate space to work his magic. Small in stature but strong and persistent, he resembles Lionel Messi as he continually wards off prodding opponents.
"He's evasive," Wasatch senior forward Ben Powell said. "The dribbling, the speed â¦ it's all there. You come at him, and all of a sudden he's gone."
That's basically how it is.
But that's not how it was in 2012, when Espinoza broke his foot two games into the season. He was playing futsal a form of indoor soccer when he leapt over an oncoming defender and came down awkwardly on his foot.
He still managed to score 17 goals in his junior campaign, but the break continually bothered him during the season. Wasatch eventually lost to Dixie 2-1 in the 3A semifinals.
"I've got to be more smart when I'm not on the field," he said, "but I love soccer and any chance I get, I take it."
His responsibilities go beyond his role as one of four senior team captains. Espinoza, the oldest of four children, helps take care of his three younger siblings and supports his mother while his father currently is in Mexico.
"I've got to help out," he said bluntly.
He had a full-ride scholarship offer to Iona University in New Rochelle, N.Y., but he opted to stay closer to home and plans on playing at Westminster College.
"That's probably one of the only reasons why I'm staying in Utah for college," he said. "I don't want to leave my mom by herself."
Wheatley said his greatest joy in coaching Espinoza is seeing the young star mature beyond his years since his freshman-season struggles.
"There's a lot of responsibility put on him, and I think playing soccer gives him the chance to free flow," he said.
Espinoza does that better than most. He always was one step ahead of everyone else in a recent 4-0 win over Judge Memorial. He headed the ball across the face of the goal off a corner kick so another teammate could run onto it.
After missing a few one-on-one opportunities, he eventually finished a goal in prototypical style.
He received a pinpoint cross from teammate Isaac Smedley and danced around a defender, then the oncoming goalie, before chipping it into the net.
He leapt high off the turf, throwing his fist high in celebration.
"I understand that it is hard, hard, hard to win a state championship," Wheatley said. "They do not come easy. If we don't win it this year, the legacy is still there a kid who did what was best for the team."
As he explains, Alex Espinoza learned to grow up a little and take things more seriously. He now boasts a 3.5 GPA and is on pace to break state and school records in search of state title No. 2.
"As long as I play," he said, "I'm good."