Aptos High girls soccer head coach Gina Castañeda was competing as she usually does in the annual Community Health Trust of Pajaro Valley softball tournament in late August to help raise funds for youth non profits.
Everything was fine until she was accidentally punched in the abdomen that forced her to sit out the rest of the game.
Next thing she knows, Castañeda was rushed to the hospital for what she thought was a fractured rib.
But the doctors found something in the CT scan that was a lot more alarming.
Just a little more than a month later on Oct. 2, she was going under the knife at Stanford Health Care to have a cancerous tumor from her left kidney removed. Castañeda is cancer-free but she still has to get scanned every six months.
“I was bedridden for at least four weeks where I could not move, I couldn’t get out of bed, ended up taking a kidney and a whole bunch of other stuff,” she said.
Castañeda was confident letting the coaching staff take over while she was recovering.
However, she also felt like she was letting the team down if the head of the program wasn’t around.
So, she got on a wheelchair and showed up for the first day of tryouts.
Since then, the Mariners (10-3-1) have been playing some inspired soccer. They currently sit atop of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League standings with an unblemished 5-0 record in league play and en route to defend their league crown.
Alexa Castañeda leads the Mariners with nine assists and is second on the team with seven goals, according to statistics on the Monterey Bay Preps website.
The sophomore attacking midfielder had difficulty processing what it would be like to play without her mom by her side, especially because Gina is the reason Alexa plays the sport.
“It was hard for me to see her in so much pain, but it just shows me how strong she is as an individual because she was out there at tryouts barely able to walk,” Alexa Castañeda said. “It’s just showing me I have to take this opportunity and she’s made me such a great soccer player.”
Alexa Castañeda notched one goal and a pair of assists in their 4-0 win over Harbor High in SCCAL action on Jan. 23, helping keep Aptos’ perfect league record intact.
“We’re taking it a game at a time because we know every team is gonna want to beat us and every game is gonna be hard for us,” she said.
The senior class is made up of Ella Shoemaker, Peyton Westjohn, Angelique Nuñez, Kaitlyn Murphy and Ava Churchill.
“We just have a lot of chemistry,” Shoemaker said. “We do a lot of team bonding too, which also helps us get really close. I think that that really shows on the field.”
Other playmakers include juniors Anahi Macias and Alessandra Zuñiga, who has recorded 25 saves as goalkeeper for Aptos.
The underclassmen are led by sophomore goalkeeper Evelyn Pini and freshman sensation Isabella Hartnett—who has the nickname Canela [cinnamon] due to being red-haired.
Pini splits goalie duties with Zuñiga and has made 22 saves in front of the net, while Hartnett has been a scoring machine with a team-best nine goals.
“I was really nervous in my first game because everyone’s already played together,” Hartnett said. “I was just learning how everyone plays and stuff. Now I kind of fit into [the team].”
In 2022-23, Aptos finished with a 9-1 record in league play to capture the SCCAL title. They saw their season come to an end following a 2-1 loss to Branham High in the Central Coast Section Division II quarterfinals.
Castañeda said she failed as a coach by not preparing the group emotionally for a big stage.
This season, Aptos focuses a lot on being both emotionally and mentally strong. Castañeda gave a PowerPoint presentation to the players about how female athletes tend to concentrate on the negatives instead of the positives.
“I felt like last year we focused so much on the mistakes we made that we never were able to grow past what we did really well,” she said.
Castañeda took a page from her own book of wisdom by learning how to stay mentally strong when it came time to break the news to her husband Patricio, son Dante and daughters Jazmin and Alexa, along with other family members, co-workers and the soccer team.
Castañeda, who will turn 49 years old in a couple of weeks, said she was lucky it was Stage 2 cancer and radiation or chemotherapy was not required. She was originally scheduled for surgery on Nov. 26 but the Stanford medical staff advised her to get in sooner.
“I thought about my kids, and that I didn’t want to die,” she said. “I didn’t want to abandon them. I didn’t want to leave them. And then I also felt the kids that I coach, that’s an extension of my kids, too. And I know that a lot of those kids look up to me.
“I felt this drive to show up and even though people told me ‘you need to take care of yourself,’ I don’t think people understand how inspired I am by not just my own kids, but the kids that I coach, too.”
Castañeda—an Aptos alumna and a pillar in the community—has been coaching some of the current Mariners players since they were 4 years old.
She has players pick out a theme song that can be used as a motivational tool. For Castañeda, it’s Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, or also known as the theme from the hit movie “Rocky.”
(Cue the horns)
As for the team, they decided on the song Unstoppable performed by Sia. It seems fitting for both the Mariners and Castañeda.
Alexa Castañeda and her teammates saw how challenging and aching it was for their head coach at the beginning of the season. She said the team felt they had a role to play because her mom was in so much pain.
“We’re all a unit now because we all supported her,” Alexa Castañeda said. “We all went through the ups and downs with her.”
The road to recovery has been a distressing one for Castañeda and the only thing inspiring her to get out of bed is being on the pitch.
“This season, it’s a lot to me. It also has given me another outlook,” Castañeda said. “I’ve always been very appreciative, but it’s just different. I want the girls to not just be champions, but whether they win or they lose, I want them to be fighters.”
Castañeda emphasizes to the team that when the world tells them they can’t do something, they have to believe that they can.
“It’s been amazing for me and as dedicated as I am to them, they are to their school and the program. That’s why we’re doing as well as we’re doing,” she said.