Oct. 25, 2012
New Mexico Lobos Women's Soccer -- In Mountain West Action
Friday: 8 p.m.(MT) -- At San Diego State
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It was a promise made that, for a while, didn't seem possible to keep.
There were two problems. The father who made the promise had died. The daughter he made the promise to no longer wanted to be where she needed to be in order for the promise to be kept.
It was a quandary formed by the harsh realities of life - and death - and the emotions of a young woman, who needed to figure some things out while trying to heal.
Really, the answer was love. Love for a father. Love for a sport.
It was in April of 2011 when Rachel Montoya returned to the family backyard to help her father, George, with some yard work and she found him lying on the ground, not breathing. It was a heart attack; massive and cruelly aimed at a husband and father, who was only 53.
"We tried to revive him, but it was too late," said Montoya, a senior of the University of New Mexico's women's soccer team. "It came out of nowhere. It was really hard. It hit me really hard."
The bond between Rachel and her father was tight, close, special. One heart stopped and another one had to deal with a massive wound and loss.
"I kind of lost the will to play soccer," said Montoya. "I told my brothers I might not go back to the team.
"Soccer was something I had always shared with my father and now that had changed."
Rachel Montoya almost didn't become a Lobo. Her father helped convinced her otherwise. She came out of St. Pius X as one of the top soccer athletes in the state. She was All-Everything in soccer and a three-time state champion.
She also was a 400-meter and medley relay state champion in track in her senior year, out for the team only because the track coach had twisted her arm.
"I had never run track. It was something new and exciting," said Montoya. "When I was first told I had to run the 400, I wasn't sure how far that was. I had just been running up and down soccer fields. Coach said, `just run as fast as you can.'"
Actually, that was the perfect advice for Montoya, an athlete always known for doing things all out. Still, when it came to choosing a college, Montoya was conflicted. Was she good enough to be a Lobo? Could she handle the demands of D-I soccer?
"I was tiny (5-3, 110 pounds) and I wasn't sure I could do it," she said. "I thought about going up to Fort Lewis (Colorado)."
Of course, dad was sure that his daughter had the right stuff to be a Lobo. That's also where he wanted Rachel to play. George Montoya was a longtime Lobo fan and that meant the family was Lobo, too.
"I was one of those little girls all dressed up like a Lobo cheerleader," said Rachel. "I had the little outfit. I was in all red, cheering them on. The pride my dad had for the Lobos was passed on to me."
Lobo Coach Kit Vela did some work on Rachel, too. Vela also saw the right stuff and that went beyond the skills of soccer. In Rachel, she saw a Lobo.
"She had the athleticism, but you saw all the other stuff you want," said Vela. "She was a blue-collar, hard-working, no-nonsense kid with a special attitude. We saw in her what our team is all about.
"You could tell she wanted to play here but she wasn't sure if she could play at this level. Her father said, `They believe you can do it. If you want to do it, do it.' He basically told her to go chase her dream and that's what she did."
It's been a good chase. She played in 17 games as a freshman, all 20 games as a sophomore and started all 21 games as a junior. Going into UNM's game Friday at San Diego State, Montoya is the team's leading scorer with five goals and four assists. She has played 1,399 minutes and has two game-winning goals.
Last week, she was the Mountain West Offensive Player of The Week.
"She is the heart and soul of everything we do," said Vela. "She is a true Lobo leader on every level. She's been phenomenal for us and that's as a person as much as a player. She is so special. Just look at her smile."
Said Montoya: To be a part of this program is an incredible experience, but to have all these winning seasons and to win Mountain West Champions is even more incredible. I tried to show the girls you can get hit hard and keep going."
Obviously, it's a good thing for the Lobos that Montoya decided to return to the team in the fall of 2011. It's been a good thing for Montoya, too. A smile has stayed radiant. A promise has been kept.
"My family made me realize that I could use soccer to be one with my dad," she said. "My brothers said, `You're playing.'
"Every time I get on the field, I know that my father is there with me and that I have a chance to make him proud and happy. I wear a wristband with his name on it. The first day I got back on the field was the best stress reliever I could find. It just felt right. It felt like he was there with me.
"Dad promised me, he said, `I will not miss any of your senior games.' And he hasn't."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning sports columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com