Soto shines on court and in classroom

Joseph Soto is posing with a ball.
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© Joseph A. Garcia
Rio Mesa High School basketball player, sophomore, Joseph Soto(cq) is on his second year of playing on the varsity squad. © Joseph A. Garcia
Joseph Soto already had pondered the relevance and factored in the history.

But when the celebratory moment came for the Rio Mesa High boys’ basketball team, the senior guard struck feelings sharper than his shooting touch.

“Before the game, I could have told you what I would feel,” said the Spartans senior guard. “But after it happened, I was overwhelmed by emotions. What I felt was basically indescribable. It meant so much to be a part of it in my senior season, and to be a part of something that I will remember for a long time.”

Adding an exclamation point to what almost certainly will be a league MVP campaign, Soto poured in a game-high 23 points last Thursday as Rio Mesa defeated arch rival Camarillo 78-65 to claim the Pacific View League title and the program’s first league championship since 1989.

“Twenty one years is a long time,” he said. “That’s longer than I’ve been alive.”

It’s not merely a league crown two decades in the making that has cranked up the emotions for the 6-foot-1 point guard and turned his senior season into a veritable joy ride.

It’s not even his 19.5-ppg scoring average, 68 3-pointers (which have moved him up to No. 3 on the county’s all-time list) or the Spartans’ 19-7 record heading into the first round of postseason play tonight.

Rio Mesa plays host to Torrance, an at-large entry from the Pioneer League, at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the CIF-SS Division 3A playoffs.

Starring on the basketball floor has always come easy for a player with a flashy all-around game. For Soto, his senior year is all about shining in life.

“I feel like I’ve grown so much just from my junior year,” he said. “Life is sometimes full of adversity, but it’s how you bounce back that matters most. I’ve had some ups and downs and made some mistakes. But I’d like to think that I’ve learned lessons, and everything that has happened has made me a much better person.”

His high school years have remade Soto from a cocky freshman as headstrong as the Santa Ana winds into a savvy and thoughtful team captain.

And in between? There are roller coasters at Magic Mountain that have served up smoother rides.

Grades didn’t matter much for the bulk of three years.

He largely ignored his classwork, often ducked classes — and ended up academically ineligible for Rio Mesa’s final two regular-season games and a playoff loss to Westlake High as a junior.

His attitude often led to clashes with head coach Chris Ruffinelli, who suspended Soto at the start of his junior season for a couple of games.

“When I first got to high school, academics wasn’t very important to me,” he said. “I thought I was big and bad and didn’t have to study. I just wanted to play basketball. People try to tell you the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to listen. I’m not saying it’s good what I did, but sometimes you have to learn and suffer and find out for yourself.”

There was one eventful personal tragedy, too.

Before his sophomore season, friend and teammate DeShawn Newton died at age 14 during a summer-club game in Texas with the L.A. Impact.

“I would give anything to have him back,” Soto said. “I would die for him, if I could. But it does make me realize how important life is. Enjoy every day like it’s your last.”

Soto said there was no light-bulb moment that changed his mindset, but a gradual maturity. It certainly was a revelation last summer to star in a number of club tournaments, then learn from various collegiate Division I coaches that they don’t merely recruit talent.

They’re seeking talented players with strong grades.

Soto has transformed his grade point average to 3.0 as a senior and promises an upswing from there.

“I now know that academics is everything,” he said. “I’m taking my classes as seriously as a job. I know that all the talent in the world isn’t enough to get you through the academic clearinghouses. If you don’t study and get good grades, all your talent on the basketball floor is worthless.”

Ruffinelli is among Soto’s biggest supporters.

“We’ve certainly had our ups and downs,” he said. “I would equate it to a father-and-son relationship. I try to tell him things, and it escalates from there. There’s been a lot of bickering. In the end, it’s all been worth it to see the changes in him as a person. A lot of it is just growing up. I couldn’t be prouder of the person he has become.”

Soto returns the affection.

“We’ve yelled at each other and had our arguments,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have each other’s back. We care (about) and love each other, and I’m so grateful for the chances he has given me.”

Soto will graduate with a high school degree, but said he must first attend a junior college or prep school to qualify for a Division I program.

“I have some classes I’ll need to make up,” he said. “That’s fine. I’m ready to do what it takes.”

It’s been a virtuoso season on the basketball floor.

With 506 points this season, he stands No. 10 all-time in Ventura County with a career total of 1,675, while also averaging 5.4 assists and 3.1 steals. Whether it’s popping jumpers or driving to the basket, he’s fearless in his approach.

Tonight, he gets a chance to play in the postseason for the first time since his sophomore year. He’s also chasing his first playoff win as Spartan.

“It means everything to me to have a chance to help my team win a playoff game,” he said. “We’ll start with one, then go for two. As a player, I love this kind of moment. The more pressure, the better.”

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