Soto sees more in life than hoops

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© Karen Quincy Loberg/VC Star
Rio Mesa senior guard Joseph Soto put his bad habits behind him, and in the process earned The Star's Boys Basketball Player of the Year award. © Karen Quincy Loberg/VC Star

Somewhere along the line, Joseph Soto got it.

He realized high school wasn’t just about basketball. Grades were important too, along with attitude and maturity. It was then that Soto became the total package.

Cleaning up his act off the court enhanced what he was doing on the court and his performance for Rio Mesa High in 2010-11 has earned him the honor of being named The Star’s Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

Soto’s first three years at Rio Mesa were a series of tilted priorities where academics didn’t hold a very high place. He also was grieving after his freshman year because of the sudden death of a close friend, DeShawn Newton, a club teammate on the L.A. Impact. Newton died of an asthma attack during a game.

“It’s one of those things that you never forget, that never really leaves your mind,” Soto said. “You have every single scene and picture in your mind.”

The trauma sent Soto to two years of counseling.

“It was hard, just being a kid and not really understanding what life is,” he said, “besides playing basketball, going to school and just being a kid. It was just overwhelming, an overwhelming two years.”

At school, Soto was skipping classes and blowing off assignments. He clashed with basketball coach Chris Ruffinelli. As a junior, Soto was suspended by the coach for two games at the start of the season. Soto then became academically ineligible for the final two regular-season games and a playoff game.

Those episodes finally woke him up and made him realize he needed to get his act together and soon.

“It was big for me to just realize the things that I was doing off the court and, not necessarily the way I was living my life, but my habits were affecting me,” Soto said. “They were (keeping) me from playing basketball at the next level. That thought just put it in my head that this is my last year, this is all that I have left of my high school legacy. I should go out with a bang and do all that I can do to put myself in the best position for college next year.”

Soto finished this season third in Ventura County in scoring with 19.0 points per game. He ranks second on Rio Mesa’s career scoring list with 1,702 points, in season steals (90), in season (82) and career (174) blocked shots. He’s the school leader in season (154) and career (353) assists, career steals (300), and season (73) and career (246) 3-point goals. The career steals and 3-point goals rank him third on the all-time Ventura County lists.

“The most notable thing about the season was just winning the (Pacific View) league championship with what we had,” Soto said. “We had a lot of young, inexperienced guys (and) no one really expected a lot from them.”

“He’s been the same person for four years,” Soto said. “The first couple of years, I came in, I was young, I was a hardheaded kid. I think it just took time for me to realize the things he said and the stuff he was doing made sense.”

Soto has improved enough academically to graduate this June, but he will have to spend some time at a junior college before a four-year school will look at him for basketball.

“Right now I have offers from various Division I schools, but I can’t accept them because I haven’t passed the NCAA Clearinghouse,” he said.

Soto also gained an appreciation of what Ruffinelli was trying to do to help him.

Ventura College is on his list of possibilities for next year, but he’s also considering such far-flung locales as Midland (Texas), Sheridan (Wyo.), Arizona Western in Yuma, and Cochise (County) College in Arizona.

Soto said the out-of-state schools are on his list because California schools do not compete for a national championship in junior college sports.

“I just feel there’s more out there for me,” he said. “A couple of the schools looking at me now have been in the Top 25 (nationally) for years and years.”

Now that Joseph Soto has his act together, he’s ready to take it on the road.

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