The Save Our Youth basketball team reached the finals of the Newport-Mesa YMCA 12- to 14-year-old division and finished second. The SOY team featured, from left: Julian Ribas, Sharon Ozuna, Rafa Hernandez, Eduardo Iniesta (Coach Eddie), Daniel Carrillo, Adrian Barajas and Vanessa Cornejo. (Courtesy of Elaine Havens / April 30, 2014)

Like most Saturday afternoons at the Newport-Mesa YMCA, the basketball court squeaks with starts, stops, and misdirection of hard-rubber soles on varnished hardwood. On a mid-April day there was a little more spring in each step.

As a championship game unfolded between two co-ed teams of young teenagers, it became clear there were nothing but winners in the gym, regardless of the final score.

The Save Our Youth (SOY) Jaguars of Costa Mesa didn't take this title game but were satisfied just the same. The underage, undersized, underdog crew from the youth center were thrilled to finish second in the league after winning only one game the previous season. After all, look how far the program has come.

"All these students, it was the first time playing basketball," Eduardo Iniestra said of the team's first season under a volunteer coach. Iniestra took over this spring, a logical progression of his part-time responsibilities at SOY. One of only two paid staff members at the non-profit, "Coach Eddie" runs the health and fitness programs in addition to his official role as the arts and music program coordinator.

"This time around they learned from it. I'm big in to basketball, so I coached them myself. I just let them have fun, but at the same time, I point out the little things that matter. And the second season we were able to make it to second place! So, I'm very proud of them."

"It brings them a lot of joy, a lot of happiness, to be able to participate," says Operations Manager Silvia Rosales, "not only in sports outside of school, but also as a team."

The SOY Jaguars are sponsored by the YMCA in a league for 12- to 14-year-olds with a roster much younger and smaller than most. Without enough older players, Coach Eddie has several 10- and 11-year-olds on the squad along with four girls, more than any other team in the league.

But size can be deceiving.

Not all are noted on the roster, but the SOY program is a much bigger team than first meets the eye. A gathering of support at the organization's annual SOY Fiesta Friday evening is a better indication. More than a hundred benefactors from surrounding communities paid up to $75 a ticket for the fundraiser dinner and silent auction held at the Halecrest Club in Costa Mesa.

Shawn Hochuli, a 35-year old financial services advisor from Newport Beach, says he's attended the fiesta and supported SOY programs for about four years. Most rewarding is, "hearing some of the past alums speaking about their experience through SOY and where they've come and what they've accomplished after being a part of SOY."

Like featured speaker Damian Leon, a 2009 Estancia High graduate. He earned a mechanical engineering degree from UC Santa Barbara and is now headed for a masters program at UC Berkeley. He started in the SOY program as a sophomore at Estancia.

"It really taught me how to buckle down and get my study habits straight," said Damian, "and make sure I was doing it the right way."

The academic and college guidance programs rely on volunteer tutors and other mentors. Athletic programs operate on the generosity of local businesses like Big 5 Sports that offered a significant discount on the new basketball shoes the Jaguars were outfitted with this season.

For the past seven years, Ivan Calderon has sponsored the fiesta. He caters to the patrons with deliciousness from his Taco Mesa and Taco Rosa restaurants

"It is an honor to work with folks that are very close to life, or just an inspiration to be with people that care about people," says Calderon. He's been involved with SOY since its inception in 1993. "It's just a blessing to be surrounded by such a wonderful group of folks that are very naturally giving, you know?"

Entertainment for the evening featured traditional Mexican dancers and singing from students in the program, all orchestrated by Iniestra. Coach Eddie enjoys sports, but his true passion is music. Under the name 'Edifica' he's gained notoriety as a DJ and performer for his positive-message Spanish language blend of hip hop and rap. Edifica was recently named one of Orange County's 10 best rap artists.

"I'm a local person from Costa Mesa and I'm doing all these things," says Iniestra while mentoring a group of SOY aspiring musicians. "The video productions are good. The music productions are good. It allows them to see that it is possible. That's it's not out of anyone's reach."

"So I talk about positivity, I talk about liberation, I talk about, you know, living a better life, I talk about helping each other out. That's basically my message."

It's the fabric of teamwork that flows in every direction. A community supporting its youth in academics, sports, and the arts is finding that helping others has it's own rewards.

"It gives them opportunities to celebrate the benefits of supporting kids in their own neighborhood," says SOY board member Mary Cappellini.

"It just keep me energized," adds Iniestra. "I see their potential and I remember mine. As I see as I see their potential, I step it up, then they step it up. I think it's a back and forth thing."

A win-win situation if ever there was one.