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Crusader speaks language of soccer

Pancho Acuna-Miranda's dream and his reality crashed head-on two summers ago, shaking the teenager's vision of the United States and forcing him to question his aptitude in a foreign place.

The St. Mary's soccer player only knew a handful of words in English — thank you, you're welcome, yes, no. Everything else he heard during an early practice in 2009 was a mishmash of noise.

"It felt impossible," he recalls.

But within a matter of minutes, the native of Mexico began to realize what he had suspected all along ... no words were required.

All he had to do was react.

That's when the 18-year-old's smile returned.

His dream was still alive.

Fast forward a season. Acuna-Miranda is a force and entertainer on the soccer field, exhausting the competition with his uncanny speed, rare versatility and head-turning aerial artistry. The 6-foot-1 striker is tied for first in goals (18) and second in assists (nine) for the Crusaders (12-2-2). He is a comedian and energizer during practices, uplifting teammates with his spur-of-the-moment break dancing and impersonations of St. Mary's fifth-year head coach Paul Coughlin.

And using the same energy that makes him a success in soccer, Acuna-Miranda is learning to speak English as quickly as he can.

Both Acuna-Miranda and his teammate Juan Becerra-Felix are here in part because of the generosity of one man, Jim Whitfield. A family friend of the Acuna-Miranda's, Whitfield is helping pay for the student athletes' costs to attend the private Catholic secondary school.

"I just want to say thank you Jim for helping us," Acuna-Miranda says of his sponsor. "Because it is a great opportunity."

Acuna-Miranda and Becerra-Felix have plenty of international company. St. Mary's, which has 448 students, nearly quadrupled its international student population to 34 students this fall with the initiation of an international student boarding school program.

While Becerra-Felix lives in a dormitory at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Acuna-Miranda stays with a host family.

St. Mary's offensive attack is also diverse. Acuna-Miranda is tied with junior wing Harrison Leep for goals this season, while Becerra-Felix has 16 goals and four assists and Reid Arne owns 35 assists and 14 goals.

"He was really a special add to the team that we really needed up top," Leep says of Acuna-Miranda, who is a junior academically. "He can shoot, place it just as well, but he also passes it. He just knows the game."

Acuna-Miranda, whom Coughlin calls a gift, has helped lead the charge with his dynamic style and propel the Crusaders during their 10-match winning streak. The group has recorded 86 goals and only given up eight.

St. Mary's was expected to have a rebuilding year after losing nine starting seniors. The squad plays Catlin Gabel (15-0-2) in the Class 3A state championship game on Saturday.

"With only two starting seniors there was a lot of worry," Coughlin said. "This team has proven to have a great ability to be taught, to be open to learning better ways of playing soccer and having great unity."

Communication hasn't been an issue, Coughlin said.

"At St. Mary's, so many people speak multiple languages each year it was easy," he says. "If we couldn't explain something effectively, someone is right there to help translate.

"Soccer is a player's game. There is not much I can do during a game to influence the outcome. I have some influence, but it is a player's game. Once they know to play the most popular sport in the world, I don't have to say it in English. I can demonstrate it. You know how to play a position regardless of the language I speak."

Here on student visas, Acuna-Miranda and Becerra-Felix grew up in the same neighborhood in Bahía Kino, a town in the Mexican state of Sonora.

When Acuna-Miranda was a young child, he said Whitfield asked him if he wanted to learn English. The inquisitive boy was always asking questions about America.

"I said, 'Of course why not?' Acuna-Miranda says. "He said, 'OK, let me see what schools are better.'"

After visiting several high schools in Wyoming last year, Acuna-Miranda discovered St. Mary's and instantly fell in love.

"I liked Oregon and I said I wanted to stay at St. Mary's," he says.

Coughlin remembers meeting Acuna-Miranda during the first day of daily doubles in 2009. Coughlin found him in an office at St. Mary's.

"Someone grabbed me and said he wants to talk to the soccer coach," Coughlin says. "I turned around and he was right there. We met out of the blue."

Last year, Acuna-Miranda lived with the Brooks family. He lives with the Salgado family of Medford now.

Katie Salgado, a longtime Spanish teacher at St. Mary's, was Acuna-Miranda's academic advisor.

"It was fun having a native Spanish speaker," she says.

It didn't take long for her to learn how skilled Acuna-Miranda was on the pitch.

"Team members were coming back to me and asking if I'd seen him play," says Salgado, who also hosts a student from Korea. "It is good to have something that you feel comfortable with, and that was it for Pancho."

Katie, who is married to Milo Salgado, realized Acuna-Miranda needed some extra assistance in the classroom toward the end of last school year.

"There wasn't a better family that could supply that," she says. "And we had room. Our two oldest daughter graduated."

At home, the family tries to speak as little Spanish as possible; however, the dinner menu often features traditional Mexican cuisine.

"A few jokes in Spanish fly around here and there," Salgado says.

Salgado said Acuna-Miranda improves as a student by leaps and bounds each day.

"He is giving it everything he has," she says.

Acuna-Miranda, whose full schedule includes a second-language course, has grown more comfortable here. His vibrant personality is proof.

"I don't know anybody else like him," Leep says. "He is very, very out there. He dances, he break dances, like randomly. He will be talking in a group and he'll start dancing. I just like watching him to see what he does, figure out what is going through his head."

He does a fine impersonation of Coughlin, too.

"He has memorized some of my lines as a coach and says them with the same inflection," Coughlin says. "He cracks everyone up. It's a humorous ripple effect."

On the field, he is just as fun.

"Pancho is flamboyant," Coughlin adds. "The neat thing about him is he brings an entertainment factor to soccer, which I think is important. It's called the beautiful game for a reason."

Acuna-Miranda, who also played baseball last season for St. Mary's, plans to return home for Christmas and then again this summer. He said he hopes to attend St. Mary's his senior year, even if he can't play — Coughlin said he is seeking more information about Acuna-Miranda's eligibility for next season, but said this is his fourth year competing.

"I can't imagine Pancho living a sedentary life," Salgado said. "He'll definitely find something to stay active."

Either way, Acuna-Miranda will be living out his dream.

"I am so happy right now," he says.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com

Pancho Acuna-Miranda and the St. Mary's boys soccer team will meet Catlin Gabel in the title match Saturday. - Jamie Lusch