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La Quinta's Arzaga isn't your typical softball player
Cork Snider and Shawn Hall peel off their afternoon jog to see what Cecilia Arzaga is up to at the softball field.
Arzaga, a senior at La Quinta High and one of the leading hitters in Orange County, is answering questions about the past four years of her life. She’s talking eloquently; her answers detailed yet concise.
Arzaga is sharing her experiences traveling to the Philippines, to Turkey, to Canada. She’s talking about her college plans, and how she’s awaiting word on her Naval Academy appointment.
At different points during her prose, Snider, an athletic director, and Hall, a calculus teacher, crane their necks into the dugout to tell Arzaga to talk about this, to talk about that. They remind her to talk about other things – her grades, her extracurricular activities and such.
Arzaga laughs, then nods. Snider and Hall resume jogging. The questions continue.
“It’s her aura,” Jeff Nadeau, La Quinta’s longtime softball coach, will later say. “She’s only been here six months, but talk about an instant impact.”
Arzaga, a Garden Grove resident, said she grew up dreaming of attending Mater Dei High, where her mother, her older brother and one of her aunts went to school.
Though raised a tennis player by her father – who was a former tennis professional in the Philippines and is currently an instructor – Arzaga latched on to softball in grade school. She played for Mater Dei’s junior varsity team in 2012, alongside former teammates now starting on varsity. Arzaga left the school that summer, however, saying financially it was no longer an option for her parents.
She took online classes the first semester of her sophomore year, while she and her family visited a nearly 90-year-old grandmother in the Philippines Arzaga had never met. They stayed through the winter, with Arzaga returning home in time for her second semester.
In the spring, she enrolled at Magnolia Science Academy, a STEM charter school in Costa Mesa and one of six such academies in California. Her class had less than 10 students.
Because charter schools don’t have sports teams, Arzaga played tennis locally with the Fountain Valley Tennis Club – a city program that plays other city programs. Softball, she gave up entirely.
In 2013, her junior year, she and a group of peers partook in Magnolia Science’s annual trip to Turkey and Canada, from where Arzaga said many of the school’s teachers hail. She received scholarships and donations to fund the trip.
“She’s had some pretty cool life experiences,” Nadeau said.
Arzaga gets her interest in the military from her father.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Art Arzaga – one of 11 children, all athletes – served on the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group in Manila for 12 years, where he monitored all sports activities. He came to the United States in his 20s.
Sports, he later told his three children, relate to life. Discipline, desire, responsibility, humility – all qualities Arzaga passed on.
“I explained to my kids, ‘If you guys want something, go get it,’” he said.
This past summer, Cecilia Arzaga spoke with counselors at Magnolia Science regarding the school’s yearly seminar at the Naval Academy – where students receive a six-day college tutorial at the Maryland campus.
Arzaga went and fell for the culture.
“We stayed in dorms there,” said Arzaga, who said her group consisted primarily of boys, but that a few girls also participated. “We did team-building activities all summer. Training. We were all athletes, so I was around kids like me. They were from all over the country, with similar credentials and accomplishments.”
Arzaga returned home in the summer, then told her parents she wanted to spend her senior year around more kids. Of the four public high schools in the area, she chose La Quinta, the school she thought would challenge her academically.
Arzaga made the varsity tennis team in the fall, earning team MVP honors.
“I just wish we had her all four years,” Snider said. “I haven’t seen an athlete quite like her in a while. She’s the kind of kid you show other kids what they can become.”
Nadeau also coaches the freshman football team – Arzaga’s younger brother’s team.
At the year-end banquet, Arzaga approached Nadeau about softball tryouts. She said if nothing else, she could mentor the team’s underclassmen.
“Our tryouts typically consist of 40 kids who’ve never put a glove on before,” Nadeau said. “And Cecilia was out there fielding everything, hitting everything. She’s very legit. After tryouts she told me she didn’t want to take anybody’s place. I told her, ‘If you’re here, you’re on the field.’
“She was a godsend.”
Arzaga has come a long way since her November tryout.
She rarely leaves the field when practice ends, Nadeau said, instead staying late to field more ground balls at shortstop. Arzaga regularly wears out the teammates and coaches that stay late with her. Nadeau encourages her not to overdo it. She tries.
Relentless, he called her. “She’s the last girl on the field every day.”
Arzaga is hitting close to .500 this season, but still turns afternoons into evenings in the batting cage. Nadeau didn’t expect Arzaga to be this good this early, but it doesn’t surprise him. She’s a fixture in the heart of his batting order, a hitter few pitchers want to face with runners on base.
She’s approaching double-digit extra-base hits this season, but feels there’s room still left to grow.
“I’m hard on myself,” said Arzaga, who has six multi-hit games in 2015. “I’m vocal, very passionate. If I make a mistake, you can tell I’m upset about it. If I do something good, you can tell I’m happy about it. I’m passionate. It feels good to be back out here, to get back in the rhythm, comfortable.”
Arzaga, 17, is awaiting word on her Naval Academy appointment.
Stefan Dirghalli, her AP biology teacher, recently wrote letters of recommendation on her behalf to Sen. Barbara Boxer and Congressman Alan Lowenthal. In his 21st year as a marine corps officer, Dirghalli said he wrote extensively about Arzaga’s character and leadership potential.
“She possesses maturity well beyond her age,” said Dirghalli, a fourth-year teacher at La Quinta. “She’s well-rounded, dedicated, she’s an all-around fantastic student and a fine young woman.”
Arzaga received her congressional nomination in January, and later interviewed with Naval Academy officers as part of her application.
She expects to hear word in April on whether she has received her appointment. If appointed, her tuition will be paid for, and she’ll be required to serve at least five years in the military after she graduates.
Arzaga said she wants to become a naval intelligence officer because she loves traveling and she fancies political and cultural conflict and peace.
“Being able to represent my country and where I’m from would be a great honor,” she said. “Carrying out missions others aren’t able to do is a huge responsibility, and a challenge I think I’m ready for.”
Nadeau sees Arzaga’s personality come out in the way she talks to adults. She’s calm, always collected and comfortable. Arzaga doesn’t advertise her experiences, Nadeau said. But her teammates know where she’s been and what she’s planning on doing.
Snider said Arzaga has direction and meaning that “you don’t really see a whole lot of people have at her age.”
“Being part of a team,” Arzaga said, “there are certain situations where you need to rely on someone. I’ve built that into my character. I like how those situations bring out the best in my teammates, how it shows their character.”
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