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"Gio" Colunga found a home in Lindsay

Vida En El Valle

(Published Tuesday, March 13th, 2012 12:49PM)

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DOWNEY-- Jonathan Colunga's high school soccer career ended on the Warren High School soccer field last Saturday.

Note: Visit the photo gallery to see photos from the CIF So-Cal Regionals.

His Lindsay High Cardinals (24-2-3) lost the CIF Southern Regional championship to St. Augustine High (San Diego) 2-1 in a thrilling overtime match.

Lindsay's Abraham Betancourt (the team's leading scorer with 36 goals) sent the game into overtime with a 22-yard, straight-on goal with nine seconds left in the 80-minute regulation match.

Many Lindsay players dyed a gold streak on their head to mimic a Mohawk in honor of the Central Section title they won. Colunga is nicknamed "Gio," after Mexican superstar Giovani Dos Santos.

The loss did little to damper Colunga's enthusiasm for the game he grew up with in Guanajuato, México.

Colunga -- one of 11 seniors (six of them starters) -- moved to Lindsay two years ago at age 16 to live with his uncle Juan Torres. He came in search of an education and high school soccer.

His parents, Vicente and Alma Colunga, remain in Guanajuato running their small business that sells over-the-counter medicine. Also left behind were his two younger brothers.

Colunga talked about his family and the support received from his teammates, coaches and parents at Lindsay High.

His sophomore season was challenging.

"I remember every single day taking a dictionary to school. I remember having to look up everything the teacher said, and everyone would laugh at me," said Colunga, moments after the loss.

"I didn't speak any English, but I found the right people in school who told me how to succeed in life. Now, if I can pursue my dream of getting into college, I will go. I hope to find a scholarship. If I can't, then I think I will go back to México, and take this as a good learning of life."

Shortly afterwards, he receives another hug from a parent, a thanks for a match well-played and for a great season that included 54 assists.

Assistant coach Benjamín Orozco II quietly comforted Colunga and several other players, who are unsuccessfully fighting off the tears, by telling them they made history. This was Lindsay's first trip to a Southern Section championship in any sport.

His sophomore season, Colunga worked in the orange orchards that nearly surround the eastern Tulare County community.

"I wanted to see how hard it is to succeed in life. I picked oranges," he recalled. "A friend told me, 'There's no better education than the one that you receive in school.'" He worked alongside other immigrants from México.

"I remember seeing the other workers, and I told myself, I was blessed because I was in school. It's so hard for them. But I have the opportunity to be here (playing soccer), even though we didn't win," he added.

Four-year Lindsay head coach Fode Douimbia, an immigrant from Senegal, understands.

"I have been in his shoes. I consoled him, I talked to him and did what I could to help him through the early stages of a young immigrant that came to a new country," said Douimbia, who arrived in the U.S. nearly 20 years ago.

"His soccer skill helped him make good friends as quick as possible," said Douimbia.

"He was missing his family, but then he noticed that a lot of people cared," said Orozco.

"He's worked cleaning lawns, fixed sprinklers for some of the parents. And now, for our team to go to Los Ángeles, it's great. A lot of them, all they know is agriculture, orange trees. This was another perspective."

Colunga's younger brothers, Alan, 13, and Uriel, 11, may wind up in Lindsay soon for the same opportunities because they play soccer too.

"I think if you came here, and you want to pursue your dream in the United States, then nothing can stop you, if you really want it. You'll find a way to keep going in life. That's what I like about the United States; there's a lot of help for immigrants," said Jonathan.

Despite the loss, many of the Cardinals were comforted by the approximate 200 supporters in the stands. Upon arriving back home late Saturday night, the busses passed by Kennedy Elementary School, where the marquee read, 'Kennedy is proud of our LHS team.'

Among the fans was Yolanda Flores.

"We don't have any children playing soccer," said Flores, one of the adults who paid the $28 for a seat on the fans' bus. "We're here for Lindsay, we're here for the team. Our team is fantastic! They have nothing, nothing to be ashamed of, they've done great."

Colunga feels "very lucky to be with such good people in this beautiful town." "I think I found the right people, the right place, the right team. We played very hard and we made history in our community. We're a family, everyone treats each other like a brother. And we're going to keep on going, working hard."

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