Just more than two years ago, the Saint Mary’s men’s soccer team was enjoying its finest ever season. The Gaels won the West Coast Conference championship for the first time in program history, earned their second-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament and enjoyed a magical run to the NCAA Elite Eight.
But, what should have been an offseason of celebration quickly turned into one of concern.
Like his teammates, junior forward Emmanuel Sarabia returned to campus from the team’s NCAA quarterfinal match in North Carolina, finished up final exams and headed home to spend the holidays with his family in Truckee.
But, once he got home the player nicknamed “Morro” knew something wasn’t quite right.
“I thought it was just a common cold,” said Morro. “I was feeling fatigued and I had a cough. I wasn’t feeling myself. As an athlete, I felt I wasn’t supposed to be losing my breath by walking around going up some stairs.”
Morro was diagnosed with leukemia, a rare cancer that affects the immune system.
“I remember seeing the reactions on (the team’s) faces,” said head coach Adam Cooper, when asked about the experience of telling the team about Morro’s illness. “I remember that moment, perfectly. It was tough to get the words out and I just remember seeing their reactions and their faces. It was difficult.”
With medical expenses piling-up quickly, the SMC soccer team decided they wanted to do something to help their teammate. With the help of Saint Mary’s administration, a fund was setup in Morro’s name and the coaches and players raised more than $25,000 to help his cause.
“Someone got the idea to shave our heads and I was all for it,” said defender Bobby Conner, who had grown his hair out since his sophomore year of high school. “My mom had breast cancer and I shaved my head for her. It was about three-and-a-half years that I had grown it out.”
After sitting out a year while undergoing treatment, not only has Morro returned to school – this spring he returned to training with the team. He is hoping to be granted a rare extra season of eligibility and play for the Gaels this fall.
“The pain (Morro) is going through to get back into shape is nothing compared to what he has gone through,” said Conner. “It is an inspiration to see him come out here every day.”
When the Gaels open their grueling fall training in August, there will be at least one player looking forward to the experience and a whole lot of supporters cheering him on.
Saint Mary's opens its 2014 season on Friday, August 29 with a road match at Colgate. The Gaels' home opener is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 12 against Central Arkansas.