Saddleback Valley Christian’s Mario Soto finds a new home on the volleyball court
By Steve Breazeale
Mario Soto is a basketball player.
As a three-year varsity member of Mater Dei’s boys basketball team, Soto was gaining exposure and momentum as a standout player and co-captain of the athletic powerhouse school’s most successful team on campus. With Soto on the roster, the Monarchs won three consecutive California State Division 1 titles.
Then one day, that all stopped.
During his senior year, Soto no longer felt comfortable on campus. The sport he had been playing at a high level since he was in the seventh grade was no longer fun in that environment. He decided to transfer to Saddleback Valley Christian School, a small private school nestled in the foothills of San Juan Capistrano.
Soto sought a valid change of residence from the CIF Southern Section offices as a way to become eligible for Saddleback Valley Christian’s basketball team. That appeal was denied. Soto then filed, unsuccessfully, for a hardship waiver appeal, which according to an email from CIF-SS Director of Communications Thom Simmons, “did not match the criteria of unforeseeable, uncorrectable, unavoidable act or condition that is non-athletic in nature.”
All Soto could do was practice with the Warriors basketball team and watch from the sidelines as they marched to an appearance in the CIF-SS Division 5AA Championships and the semifinals of the State Championship tournament.
But then, on a whim, he joined another successful team on campus—the boys volleyball team.
He went to his first open gym tryout as a complete rookie, having never picked up a volleyball before in his life, save for a few experiences in P.E. class back in grade school. He saw the net in the middle of the court and was not sure if the goal was to hit the ball over, or under it.
“That first open gym was completely foreign to me. Usually when I’m stepping on a court, I’m lacing up to play basketball,” Soto said.
After a few uneasy moments, his natural athleticism took over.
“I had my first block during that open gym. After I got it, everyone was looking at me and I was like, ‘Did I do something right?’ And they smiled and said ‘Yeah, you can be pretty good at this,’” Soto said.
What followed was a rapid ascension from total beginner to starter on the reigning CIF-SS Division 5 championship Warriors roster. Soto still runs with the basketball team for two and a half hours a day and after each practice, he trots out onto the court to join his new team.
Boys volleyball head coach Ryan Van Rensselaer and the Warriors were excited to get a raw, athletic middle blocker into their rotation. After several key seniors departed in the offseason, an athlete with Soto’s height and skill set provided a unique opportunity to fill a void.
“I knew from the get-go that he was super coachable and that it was going to be easy. Basketball kids have a different work ethic, most of them, from volleyball guys. I love it when they want to transfer over and play,” Van Rensselaer said. “He was raw but I could see his athleticism. He could get his head up over the net but he didn’t know how to block or anything. I thought, ‘Wow, if this kid really applies himself he could actually be effective, as opposed to just filling a spot for us.’ It was exciting.”
The first few weeks of practice were full of trial and error, as Soto had to build his technique and footwork from the ground up. He could jump but had to learn the correct way to elevate, seal his arms over the net and make a block, the middle blockers’ most common duty.
His polished moves on the basketball court could only serve him so much in volleyball. Soto had to put aside the fact he was good at one sport and embrace the steep learning curve of another, something his teammates picked up on right away.
“Sometimes people can come into a new sport and want to do it their way because it doesn’t look good or look cool,” senior co-captain and outside hitter Torrey Karlsen said. “But he was very open and didn’t care if he made a mistake. He just got back up after it happened and brushed it off and kept going. He’s progressed a lot.”
Hours of practice have paid off, as Soto now starts and contributes for the Warriors, who have an overall record of 18-3-1 this season. He is third on the team in blocks (33) and sixth on the team in points (81).
Basketball is still his first love and Soto wants to pursue it at the collegiate level. The thought of playing volleyball in college has crept into his mind lately, but for now, he will continue to work toward getting better at a sport that has him feeling rejuvenated.
“For a sport I’ve been playing since I was little to get taken away from me was tough,” Soto said. “With volleyball it’s almost like a second chance for me, a new beginning. It’s opened my eyes. It’s like a whole new world.”
Mario Soto is now a volleyball player.