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A lot rides on soccer for Plant City’s Eric Ugarte

The Plant City striker, whose parents are migrant workers, hopes the game can forge a path from the fields to a college classroom.
Plant City's Eric Ugarte, center, is seen during practice at the school Wednesday. Plant City faces Miami Beach on Saturday in the Class 5A state championship in Deland. (CHRIS URSO   |   Times)
Plant City's Eric Ugarte, center, is seen during practice at the school Wednesday. Plant City faces Miami Beach on Saturday in the Class 5A state championship in Deland. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published Feb. 23, 2018
Updated Feb. 23, 2018

PLANT CITY — Eric Ugarte was beaming as he prepared to play on high school soccer's biggest stage. If nearly a full week of hoopla leading up to today's Class 5A state championship game had worn the Plant City senior out, he hid it well.

Eric seemed at ease in the spotlight, something that had eluded him despite scoring 71 goals in his career. Now all eyes will be following the skilled striker, from defenders to fans to perhaps some college coaches.

The notoriety is something Eric hopes will earn him a college scholarship. He knows that soccer is his best path for a different future.

His parents, Melquides and Reina, are migrant workers. They pick strawberries, melons, whatever is in season. On weekdays, Eric juggles schoolwork, practice and games to work in the fields alongside his parents to help supplement their income.

"It's tough; the work is hard," Eric said. "I try to be there and help whenever I can because they have busted their butts for me."
Melquides played soccer recreationally. He taught Eric how to play when he was 3 years old.

"I never played anything else," Eric said. "Soccer was it for me."

By the time Eric entered high school, he already was an experienced player and continued to show his uncanny ability to put the ball through the net.

That goal-scoring acumen has helped him travel the world to develop his craft.

He has gone to Spain to play with top Americans through an academy program. He stayed in Argentina for a month this past summer to train with the reserve team for the renowned San Lorenzo club.

Those trips also were humbling.

"It shows how to be grateful for what we have over here," Eric said. "You have players over there who have cleats that are ripped and they're asking you for a new pair every day. It shows you once you come back that we have everything, and they don't have enough."

Still, it has not been enough to get the attention of colleges.

Part of the problem is Eric cannot dodge the computer-printout prejudices colleges have when evaluating prospects. After all, programs measure recruits not only by how many goals they can score but by increments of height.

That is where Eric falls short. He is 5 feet 6.

"Eric is one of the most accomplished players around here, and he obviously really wants to play in college," Plant City coach Caleb Roberts said, "It's just tough because of his height. It's the only thing holding him back."

Instead, Eric focuses on winning. The Raiders have done a lot of that. They are a combined 34-1-1 the past two seasons. Their success comes from a bond built on and off the field. During lunch, the players go to Roberts' classroom to do homework. When they're finished, they play FIFA soccer on Xbox.

"We're like family," Eric said. "Nearly everyone on this team has played together for 10 years or longer. It shows. We have chemistry with each other and knew that we could make it this far.

"Now, we're actually playing for a title."

For Eric, it's more than having a taste of fame.

He is also playing the title game in honor of former Mulberry standout Pepe Salgado, a close friend who was killed in car crash last May.

"The day that he died I was at the soccer field with him," Eric said. "We played club soccer together. I hung out with him all the time. It was really devastating to know someone that well and that young who died. His younger sister died in the accident, too."

Eric has a tattoo of an angel's wing on his left forearm in memory of Salgado.

"Every day I say a prayer for him," Eric said. "Winning this title is as much for me and my teammates as it is for him."

Eric's parents cannot go to Saturday's game. The work is too demanding this time of year. His older brother, Daniel, who also works in the fields, is taking the day off to attend.

"My parents can't get the time off to go to many games," Eric said. "But I know they'll still be rooting us one. Everyone will.

"It's what Plant City is all about."

State soccer

Who: Plant City (18-1) vs. Miami Beach (26-2-1)

When/where: 1 p.m. Saturday; Spec Martin Memorial Stadium, DeLand

Admission: $12 at the gate