Leadership Public School: Richmond had never had a Division I scholarship athlete in their school’s history. That might not be too surprising for a charter school that’s more focused on academics than athletics. But that changed this year.
Senior soccer players Nicolas Brenes Jr. and Alonzo Del Mundo both earned Division I scholarships to play soccer at San Jose State University and UC Berkeley, respectively, signing their letters of intent on February 1 in front of friends, family, faculty and even some members of the Richmond City Council.
Division I, or D-I, is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA).
“First and foremost, our school is dedicated to helping students get to college and get through college,” said the school’s athletic director Daniery Rosario. “For Nick and Alonzo, to get to college is a major accomplishment—at major universities—but they also have the opportunity to pursue their passions and to receive a pretty generous financial aid package to help their college experience and help their families out, so it’s pretty special.”
Nationally, Division I men’s soccer programs only give out an average of 10 scholarships per year. According to a study by scholarshipstats.com, only over one percent of men’s high school soccer players go on to play Division I collegiate soccer.
Brenes Jr., a center midfielder for LPS Richmond, is the son of former Mexican professional player Nicolas Brenes Sr. of Atlante F.C. He has scored 11 goals and tallied four assists for LPS Richmond so far this season.
“Since I was a kid, my first goal was to play high school soccer, varsity,” Brenes Jr. said. “One of the biggest fears I had was spending a lot of money for college, but this scholarship helped me a lot and helped my family out a lot.”
Del Mundo played his first two years for LPS Richmond, but he’s spent the last few years playing in the San Jose Earthquakes academy, currently playing with the Under-18’s, or U-18’s, the last youth level in the academy. He’s following the path of another Cal Bear who came through the academy and recently signed a “Homegrown” contract with the Quakes, defender Nick Lima, who played his high school soccer at Castro Valley.
While college soccer gives an opportunity for players to develop and consider going pro, possibly through Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft—the league’s college draft—the youth academies throughout the league act as a fast-track for a player who wants to go pro, allowing them to skip the draft and sign immediately after college if a club can place a Homegrown claim on them.
The “Homegrown Player Rule” allows Major League Soccer clubs to sign local players from their own youth academies straight onto their first-team roster. Most clubs usually sign a player to a Homegrown deal toward the end of their college career, as was the case with Lima.
The Earthquakes have only signed two players to Homegrown deals in their club history so far: midfielder Tommy Thompson in 2015 and Lima this offseason. If it happens for Del Mundo, he would just be the third Homegrown signing by the Quakes.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it—I was in shock,” Del Mundo said about the scholarship. “I got a call from [Cal soccer coach] Kevin Grimes and that’s when I was like ‘Oh man, this is actually serious.’”
Before joining the Quakes’ academy system, Del Mundo was offered pro contracts with Mexican clubs Club America, Santos Laguna, Club Atlas and Chivas Guadalajara. At the time, his parents didn’t allow him to sign a pro contract because they wanted him to focus on school.
“I love the academy life,” he said. “They give us so much gear, the way they treat us with all the trainers, the facilities we get to use, the trips that we take almost every other weekend. It’s just a professional environment that we have right there.”
Del Mundo recently played against the Earthquakes’ starters in a scrimmage at Avaya Stadium, taking on the likes of Lima and captain Chris Wondolowski. The U-18’s lost the scrimmage 3-0. He is also one of 11 Quakes academy alumni players who have signed a Division I letter of intent.
Both Del Mundo and Brenes Jr. are products of the Richmond youth soccer program, which is as competitive as it gets. “What I noticed as an outsider into Richmond was that it was more than just a game,” athletics director Rosario said. “Soccer was really life. These kids start playing at the age of 5, maybe even sooner.”
“We had that movie Coach Carter that focused on basketball. Football is still pretty much important to this community, but soccer trumps both of those sports in this community in today’s day and age. You often have multiple leagues develop, multiple clubs develop,” Rosario added.
Brenes Sr. started a club called Richmond United-Arsenal when Brenes Jr. was about 5. He knew the good players in the area and kept them all together and kept them off of the streets to help them achieve their dreams. “He did it mostly because he knew they had big dreams,” Brenes Jr. said of his father’s club. “We all stayed. Nobody left. We had that culture.”
One of Brenes Jr’s. old teammates at Richmond United-Arsenal, Kevin Navarette, also committed to San Jose State along with Brenes Jr.
Del Mundo says that because of all the clubs for young players, and the high level of interest in the community, many clubs and leagues develop. “So, around 10, 12 years old, everybody’s good. Teams are really good,” Del Mundo said.
But the teen years can be tough for young athletes in Richmond, as safety and the temptations of street life become a struggle for some students. In a 2016 study by NeighborhoodScout.com, Richmond was rated safer than just nine percent of cities in the U.S. It has a rate of 155 crimes per square mile, nearly five times that of the national median (32) and just under double that of the state of California (90).
“Then you get to middle school and the Richmond effect gets to you,” Del Mundo continued. “So there’s a lot of friends that I’ve known that were really good players, but took the wrong steps and now they’re either in jail or not even doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Soccer is big here. It’s just keeping the right mindset and moving forward and not getting influenced by what’s around you.”
Brenes Jr. and Del Mundo’s success has begun to spread throughout their school and the athletic program. Several of LPS Richmond’s coaches were former college players, according to Rosario, and he says that seeing the soccer program develop their first two Division I players has motivated the rest of the program.
“As much as their job is teaching, there’s a part of them that fully understand the potential of sports in their lives,” Rosario said. “They love teaching, but they also love coaching sports, so this just added another layer for them, because we can do this.”
For everything soccer and sports, follow Jeff Weisinger on Twitter at @MrWeisGuy.