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Monreal not forgotten as Lobos open season

By Jimmy Carter jcarter@news-journal.com
Jan. 9, 2013 at 10 p.m.

Alex Aguirre hopped into of the bed of the pickup truck at the last second.

He was going to ride to soccer practice in the truck's cab, but changed his mind when he saw Cristian Monreal sitting by himself in the bed. The two best friends talked over the wind as the truck rambled down the road on the way to Longview High School.

They never made it to practice.

Lobos soccer coach James Wright could see the police cars and fire trucks' flashing lights just down the road from the practice field, but he didn't know why they were there. Margaret Wright, his wife and the boys junior varsity coach, grew more and more concerned, insisting that something was wrong when she was unable to get any of the six absent senior players to answer their phones.

"They're normally the first ones out there," she said. "So it didn't make any sense. It was a little worrisome why they were all gone."

She was hit with the devastating news when someone finally picked up. Her gut feeling had been right.

The truck's driver lost control of the vehicle while driving down Airline Road, causing the car to roll over and come to rest near the Loop 281 intersection, about 200 yards from the LHS campus and just close enough for the soccer team to see the responding emergency vehicles.

Monreal was thrown from the bed of the truck and was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver and two passengers, including Aguirre, were injured and had been transported to a hospital.

Other seniors, including Fernando Lopez, were in vehicles ahead of the truck, but saw the accident and turned around. It didn't take Lopez long to realize that his decision to hop out of the truck bed and ride in his cousin's car might have saved his life.

"Man, that could have been me," he thought.

Aguirre lost a chunk of skin on his knee during the Nov. 7 wreck, but was otherwise relatively unscathed. The injury still gives him occasional discomfort, but the remaining scars are nothing compared to the pain of losing his best friend.

It hasn't been easy for the soccer team to cope with losing Monreal. Playing the sport is a reminder of their former teammate's absence, a void that will likely be even more glaring this afternoon when the Lobos open their season in the Forney Tournament.

"Every time I step on the field, he's always on my mind," Aguirre said. "Every day really, but especially on the team."

Today would have been Monreal's first varsity game.

He played briefly for the freshman team, but bad grades and an at-times contentious relationship with James Wright resulted in him leaving the team. Wright wasn't thrilled when Monreal showed up outside his classroom door his sophomore year.

"I was expecting trouble," Wright said. "I basically read him the riot act and he was like, 'Coach, coach, I've changed.'"

Wright quickly found out the change was real.

"The kid was like a different human being," Wright said. "A sweet kid. It was night and day. He'd grown up."

The once at-odds coach and player quickly developed a close relationship. Monreal dropped by Wright's classroom so often that Wright and his teaching assistant grew to recognize his knock on the door.

"He would just be coming by to see how everything was," Wright said.

After a while, Monreal approached Wright about rejoining the team.

Wright was on board with the idea, but Monreal's grades and eligibility were an issue. So he went from teacher to teacher asking for extra credit, explaining that he had to play on the soccer team.

His hard work paid off. He started practicing with the team last spring, thrilled to be playing with friends like Aguirre and Lopez again.

"Being back on the team was the best thing for him because he dreamed of playing for the Lobos," Aguirre said. "It's tough. Now every good thing we do, we dedicate it to him, in his name."

Wright has had to alter his coaching style since the accident.

A group of seniors showed up late for practice in early December, prompting Wright to scold them. But he backed off when he found out they had been visiting Monreal's grave because it was the one-month anniversary of the accident.

"So I've been a little guarded about what I get on to them about since then," Wright said. "This is my first experience with something like this. It's been the worst loss I've ever experienced in my life. My grandparents died a while back, but it was somewhat expected because they were in their 70s and 80s.

"But to lose a young man with his whole life in front of him is very difficult. I can't comprehend what the parents have had to endure."

Monreal was survived by parents Javier and Gloria Monreal and his 11-year-old brother, Emiliano, who also plays soccer. The family attended each preseason scrimmage and plans to support the team at every home game.

The Lobos will play their season without Monreal, but he will be far from forgotten.

The family's presence will help serve as one reminder of their former teammate.

So will the sleeves bearing Monreal's No. 19 that the players will wear underneath their shin guards.

So will his locker in the soccer locker room, which remains unopened and still houses clothes and a watch inside while pictures and notes are taped to the outside.

And so will his parking space, which was turned into a memorial shortly after his death. It was the sight of a gathering in remembrance of Monreal two days after the accident.

Wright drove to the high school during Christmas break to respectfully clear the candles, flowers and vuvuzelas scattered across the space - spray painted with "In Loving Memory" and the No. 19 inside a soccer ball.

But he had a surprise waiting for him when he pulled into the parking lot.

A boy was visiting the parking place, which was now home to a tiny Christmas tree. So Wright turned his car around and drove away.

"I had thought maybe it was time to move it, but as soon as I saw somebody there I thought that was a sign to just leave it alone," Wright said. "It needed to stay where it is."

The memorial is still standing. Lopez still walks past the parking space after each school day.

And each time, he spends a moment remembering his teammate.

NOTES: The Lobos will open the 2013 season in the Forney Tournament today, taking on Sulphur Springs at 11:30 a.m. and Lindale at 3 p.m. On Friday, the Lobos will face Waco University at 1:30 and Ferris at 4:45 p.m. The tournament concludes on Saturday.

(Follow Jimmy Carter on Twitter: @jicartersports)



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