With UC Irvine’s men’s soccer team making headlines and establishing its dominance in the Big West Conference, it is only natural that one would pay close attention to the factors involved in the team’s success. One major asset is Anteater forward, Christopher “Chino” Santana. Chino is a senior whose entire life and family has revolved around soccer. Since the tender age of five, Santana has been on the soccer field, scoring goals and making a name for himself.
“Growing up, that’s all I did,” Santana said. “I would wake up, play soccer with my brother. We were always trying to outcompete each other, trying to be the better athlete. I feel like the person I am and the skills I have today are because of him.”
Santana attributes much of his success to his older brother Jiovanni. Jiovanni still comes to support Chino during his games, giving him pointers and constantly encouraging him to keep improving his game. His older brother is Santana’s “hardest critic,” but a smart player that Santana respects.
With Santana entering his last season here at UCI, it was bound to be his best year yet. He came into the season feeling good, the best he had ever felt after playing with his roommates/teammates all summer. But an obstacle soon presented itself when Santana broke one of the five metacarpals in his hand on the second day of pre-season.
“I use my hands a lot when I play,” Santana said. “I went to check for the ball and I stuck my hand out to push off a defender. My finger got caught in his bib, and when we pushed off each other, it just snapped.”
Initially, Santana did not think too much of the injury; he believed it was just a jammed finger. He wrapped his hand, returned to the field and proceeded to irritate his finger again. When he noticed how swollen his knuckle was, he was forced to take to the sidelines and miss the first two games of the season.
Santana was not unfamiliar to injuries interfering with his soccer lifestyle. In fact, injuries are the biggest obstacle in Santana’s soccer career. Right before entering UC Irvine, Santana tore his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), taking him out of the game for six months. He was cleared to play right as pre-season was kicking off, but two weeks into it, he strained his quadriceps. Santana managed to stay healthy both his first and second season, but was not free of all the injuries yet. Last year, Santana tore his hamstring, ending his season after just five games. This year, Santana was struck again with bad luck, with his hand injury at the beginning of pre-season.
Every experience yields a lesson. After enduring all the injuries and recovering back into shape, Santana has learned the value of patience when dealing with an injury. He rushed to rehab for his PCL tear, which ultimately led to his quad strain. He has learned to count his blessings and be thankful that he has been healthy this past season.
“I’ve learned that you can’t come back and expect to be the player that you used to be,” Santana said. “I feel that patience has a lot to do with overcoming those obstacles.”
Despite Santana’s individual struggles, UCI men’s soccer has prevailed the last five years. UCI men’s soccer has Big West Conference Champions titles and national title under its belt. Santana, being such a seasoned player, has seen the dynamics of the team change both on and off the field.
“Over the years, I feel like we got smaller, a lot smaller,” Santana laughed. “But I feel like everyone is super skillful on the ball; with this team, everyone is able to do whatever they want with the ball.”
Even off the field, Santana described how the structure of the team has evolved. Initially, the freshmen were segregated from the rest of the team. But now, the entire team is a very close-knit group of guys, hosting team dinners before games, goofing around in the locker room, anything to keep them relaxed and remind them of their camaraderie. Santana admitted that his teammates have become his brothers, the guys who will be at his wedding one day, friends that he will have forever.
Santana took the time to reflect not only on the dynamics of his team this year, but also upon the many memories he has created here at UCI.
“Winning the Big West with this team felt really special,” Santana said. “It felt good my sophomore year, but I feel like we have many more games to go. We have so much more and that will not be our only championship.”
Santana hopes to continue playing soccer after UCI, whether it be overseas or Major League Soccer. Soccer is something that has been a part of his life ever since he can remember, a significant part that is a borderline “obsession.” Santana presents a healthy obsession; for soccer is all he has known despite the limited opportunities he had growing up in Bishop, California. He will now leave a legacy in his name here at UCI.