Not the man he used to be

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Joseph Soto
© Acorn Newspapers

Joseph Soto hasn’t experienced a saccharine Disney fairy tale for his basketball odyssey at Rio Mesa High.

The star-crossed point guard has lived through ups and downs.

He’s dazzled with acrobatic layups and pirouetting rainbow buckets beyond the arc.

He’s carried the Spartans for stretches with an intuitive ability to make big plays.

He’s been, at times, great.

Soto has also struggled with adversity.

The senior was briefly suspended by his head coach. He was academically ineligible for the final two games of his junior season, which included a humbling playoff loss at Westlake.

He’s argued with his coaches during games and been branded a selfish player.

Soto’s also had to cope with the death of a close friend.

“I wish I could start high school over again,” Soto said.

But if that happened he wouldn’t be the man he is today.

“School is everything,” said Soto, who now has a solid 3.0 grade-point average. “Coming into my freshman year, I thought I was big and bad and that I didn’t have to go to class.

“I see the big picture now.”

The Spartan, who turned 18 on Jan. 5, has continued developing into a bona fide point guard.

He leads Rio Mesa and the entire Pacific View League in points (19.7), assists (5.4) and steals (3.2) per game, and he’s in the top five statistically in blocks and 3-pointers made.

Head coach Chris Ruffinelli witnessed Soto’s maturation.

“ I’ve been very, very impressed and proud of him in terms of where he went from last year to this year,” Ruffinelli said. “He’s definitely matured. He went from a young adult to an adult.”

A four-year varsity standout, Soto has clashed with Ruffinelli. They’ve also learned how to work through their differences. It’s not like Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson always get along.

“It hasn’t been a smooth ride for him or the two of us together,” Ruffinelli said. “We’ve had ups and downs. We’ve had some blowups.

“I suspended him from the team going into his junior season— we had a blowup. He took heat from me. I was frustrated because I saw him underachieving. We got into it. Most kids could not take that.

“I’ve put a lot of pressure on him over the last four years. We’ve had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations, blunt conversations off the floor that most people don’t see. I’ve been harder on him than anybody over the last four years because I have high expectations of what he can do.”

Teammates have noticed Soto’s continued growth into a special student-athlete.

“He’s brought a lot of consistency,” said senior forward Frank Fassl. “We’re dependent on him for points every night. But he also distributes the ball more, and he’s getting a lot of steals and blocks. He’s a good defender.

“He’s always been a good scorer. Now he’s an all-around better player.”

Fassl can’t help but marvel at Soto working his mojo on the court.

“It’s fun to play with him,” the forward said. “And it’s fun to watch him—even when I’m on the bench.”

Missing two games because of poor grades last year was demoralizing for Soto, who wants to play college basketball.

“It was an eye-opener,” the point guard said. “In order for me to continue playing basketball, school has to be a priority. I’m trying to create good habits in and out of the classroom.”

Although Soto will receive his high school diploma this spring, he needs to make up several classes to become eligible for NCAA Division I action. He will either attend a community college or a prep school, where he can preserve his eligibility.

Soto’s life changed forever when friend and LA Impact club teammate DeShawn Newton died at age 14 during a summer basketball tournament in Texas before the Spartan’s sophomore season.

At the tournament, LA Impact lost two of three games. Soto and his teammates collected enough mental fortitude to reach the tournament semifinals.

“I lost one of my best friends,” Soto said. “That’s something I’ll never forget . . . I never thought I’d be able to get that out of my head. I had to keep strong mentally. Somehow after a year it went from depression to inspiration.

“When I think back on it now, this is what makes me tough. I used to want to cry and be sad. This helps me focus. I think, ‘He’s not here to play basketball anymore. I can, and I have to take advantage of that to my fullest.’”

Soto still looks back on his youth and smiles.

He fondly recalls playing basketball at age 5 for his grandfather, Ruben Herrera, at the Seventh Street Boys & Girls Club of Oxnard.

When he was in kindergarten, Soto’s mom, Christine, coached her son. His dad, Joe, also helped coach Soto as a youngster.

Now Soto’s cheering on his sister Jocelin, a Rio Vista Middle School seventh-grader who stars in basketball, soccer and softball.

Soto wants to lead the Spartans to a Pacific View championship and a deep playoff run.

He strives to play Division I hoops, be the next Jimmer Fredette or Kemba Walker soaring for nifty dimes, runners and floaters replayed on ESPN.

The story of Joseph Soto isn’t a cautionary tale. It’s one of redemption, a story that’s still being written.

Soto has dreams. He understands that it takes work—real hard, honest-to-goodness labor— to turn those reveries into reality.

“I want to be a role model for kids who don’t take school seriously,” Soto said in the Virginia L. Bennett Gymnasium.

“For kids who hope to play Division I basketball, school is important. School is something you definitely have to take seriously.”

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