Three years ago, Marco Pineda played much bigger than his size as a freshman at Estancia High. Pineda, then 4-foot-10, made sure no one pushed him around on the soccer field.
Size didn't matter to Pineda, who proved it as a defender with gritty play. The frosh-soph coach raved about Pineda to the head varsity coach, Robert Castellano. One day, Castellano came out to watch Pineda, before he walked away with one question.
"Could Pineda perform on the varsity level with his tiny size?" Castellano said.
He never found out the following season. Pineda didn't come out for the team as a sophomore, missing the spring and summer off-season programs.
Pineda missed a lot more, his father, Leonardo, the man he said he hasn't seen since second grade.
Pictures are all Pineda has of his dad, who lives in Mexico. The reason Pineda said he hasn't seen him in person is because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported his father, an undocumented immigrant.
Plans for Pineda to reunite with his father escalated in the spring of his ninth-grade year. Pineda lived with his mother, Albina, and the two mulled over the decision to move to the state of Michoacán to be with Leonardo.
"We had talked about moving for quite a while," Pineda said. "My mom left it up to me. I wanted to stay here. I've been here since I was like 1. Everyone here is a friend. I had everything here, except for my dad. I had a lot to get used to if we moved to Mexico.
"We talked to my dad on the phone. Overall, he said we had a better future here. He always tells me that I've made it this far and to not give up."
Pineda and his mom stayed in Costa Mesa. Pineda is glad they stayed put.
Pineda returned to the Eagles, and by his senior year, he no longer looked diminutive. He grew to 5-9, and with his play, the soccer team rose to new heights under Castellano this past season.
Pineda is the Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team Player of the Year in boys' soccer after he led Estancia (16-6-5) to the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs. On an injured left knee, Pineda pushed the program to its best run in 14 seasons.
"We haven't had a player like Marco who plugs up the whole middle the way he does in a really long time," said Castellano of his defensive midfielder, who earned All-CIF Southern Section Division 5 and first-team All-Orange Coast League honors after he finished with five goals and two assists. "Marco's not flashy, just strong-willed, and he was so important to the team. The three games he missed because of his bruised knee we lost our shape on the field and our leader.
"I sometimes wonder how much better he would have been if he played as a sophomore."
Pineda sat out his sophomore season, not because of lack of size, just confidence.
Castellano is an approachable coach, but he's a stickler about players participating in the off-season programs. He wants them to be committed and have structure. Since Pineda was a no-show in the off-season, he figured he stood no chance to make the team.
The story behind why Pineda didn't come out, him possibly leaving the country to live with his dad, is one he didn't have the courage to tell Castellano. Pineda did ask Castellano for one more shot, in hopes to resume soccer as a junior.
When Castellano saw Pineda again, he was 9 inches taller.
"I had to look up to him," Castellano said.
Castellano hasn't stopped looking up to Pineda. He admires his work ethic, which rubbed off on teammates.