Leading from Behind

by Micah McDaniel

When women’s soccer head coach Jason Surrell ’96 thinks about Mayra Almazan ’15, the 16-year Cougar mentor sits back and chuckles. “We still joke about her ‘recruitment,’ ” said Surrell about Almazan’s unorthodox journey to Azusa Pacific. Surrell did not formally recruit her despite the fact she grew up just down the road from APU, played at Covina’s South Hills High School—where Surrell teaches and whose head coach, Scott Mocabee ’97, doubles as APU’s current assistant—and both coaches have known her since she was 14 years old.

It should have been a no brainer. But it wasn’t. Almazan didn’t even consider Azusa Pacific. “I always said I was going to go where I was able to get the most money,” said Almazan. “I was going Division I, and they knew that. When I committed to UC Santa Barbara, Coach Surrell told me that if things didn’t work out, I’d always have a place at APU. I didn’t think much of it at the time.”

Until she arrived in Santa Barbara.

Something was amiss from the start. Although she played in every game as a freshman, Almazan never felt comfortable in her new surroundings. Near the end of the season, she suffered an injury and her playing time decreased. For the first time in her life, soccer wasn’t fun. But soccer is in her blood. It’s part of who she is. The daughter of Costa Rican parents, she holds dual citizenship, and in high school, she could have trained with the Costa Rican National Team as it prepared for the 2010 U20 Women’s World Cup in Germany, but she declined in order to focus on school. While at UCSB, she was called in to play with the Costa Rican senior team for an exhibition against the United States, the Americans’ first game since winning the gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“That was surreal,” said Almazan. “We had a game at UCSB on Friday, and I caught a red eye to New York and got to the stadium an hour before the game. I played the entire second half, and we lost badly, but I didn’t care. I was on the same field as all the girls I looked up to as a kid—Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan. I took pictures with them after the game.” It was a brief respite from what had been a disappointing freshman year, and it was time for a change.

“I remembered what Surrell had told me, and I decided to transfer after winter break. Oddly, when I visited the previous summer, it was the first time I had ever been on campus.”

It was love at first sight. In two seasons at Azusa Pacific, Almazan has scored 18 goals, earned multiple honors, and in 2014, became the first player in school history to earn NCAA Division II All-Region honors. In her first season, she scored the title-winning goal in overtime of the 2013 NCCAA National Championship game and was named NCCAA National Player of the Year. More important, she fell in love with the game again, and when offered a chance to play in the 2014 U20 Women’s World Cup in Canada, she jumped at it and played in all three of Costa Rica’s group games, starting one.

After the 2014 season ended, Almazan went on her first mission trip to Kenya. During the 11-day journey, the team went village to village, hut to hut, sharing the Gospel. “My first day out, we led an entire family of seven to Christ, and I got to pray for and witness the healing of a woman who had been suffering from severe back pain for years. I learned right then how to trust God completely. That was a life-changing experience for me.”

That was the first thing Surrell noticed upon her return. “She’s always been a great kid, but there’s no question God got a hold of her heart there. Her spirit is different. It’s evident in the way she treats her teammates and the way she approaches her life.”

Now a senior, Almazan knows the responsibility that brings. “When I first got to APU, I was encouraged by watching seniors strive in their faith. Now as a leader of this team, others will watch me strive in mine. I just want to lead by example and serve them. I don’t want people to follow me. I want to follow them from behind and push them to be better.”

Micah McDaniel ’99 is a digital and content marketer living in McKinney, Texas. Email him at [email protected].

Originally published in the Fall '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.