Mateo Restrepo-Mejia wasn’t your average Canadian kid growing up when it came to sports.
While most kids north of the border learn how to skate at about the same time they’re learning how to walk, Restrepo-Mejia chose instead to have a ball at his feet rather than a puck on the end of a stick.
These days, he is one of the big reasons why the UCSB men’s soccer team is playing Wake Forest on Saturday for the right to go to the College Cup. As a defender, playing both right and left back as well as in midfield this season for the Gauchos, Restrepo-Mejia has been one of the most consistent players on a team that is 15-4-4, and playing in its first Elite Eight since 2006 — the year UCSB captured its first and only national championship in men’s soccer.
“He has been a jack of all trades for us,” Gaucho coach Tim Vom Steeg said. … “I can’t say enough about his character. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s a great student-athlete. But this year for our team, we don’t get through this year without players like him.
“We’ve been fortunate with all the injuries that we took, that we had players like Mateo who are four-year guys, who are experienced. I’m very pleased that he’s been able, on his way out, to show everyone what kind of player he is.”
Being a success on the soccer field is nothing new for Restrepo-Mejia.
He came to UCSB after playing for three years in the Toronto FC Academy. He was also a member of the Canadian National Team program for five years and he spent one year with FC Ingolstadt in the U19 Bundesliga in Germany.
Restrepo-Mejia says he’s glad he chose soccer over hockey or any other sport.
“Where I lived in Toronto, there’s a huge immigrant population, and they come from all over the world,” he said. “The world sport is soccer, right? I had a good community around me that supported my dream and allowed me to express myself in the soccer world.”
While it’s been a dream senior season so far for the Gauchos affable defender who’s as tough on the field as anyone else, it wasn’t that way last season for Restrepo-Mejia.
He hadn’t lost interest in the sport or his teammates. No, it was a lot more involved than that. Restrepo-Mejia has another goal besides soccer: He wants to be a doctor someday. It’s why he’s majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. As a student-athlete at UCSB — which is regarded as one of the top public universities in the world — it’s like having two full-time jobs, especially if being a doctor is what one of your aspirations happens to be.
It all caught up with Restrepo-Mejia last season, which is why his game wasn’t up to his standards, and why he appeared in only 11 matches compared to 18 this season — which includes 14 starts.
“He has this goal of being a doctor, which requires the hardest classes that we have here at UCSB short of engineering,” Vom Steeg said. “If you’re going to go to medical school, every grade is important as well as your scores.
“So he just really started to focus in on his academics, and some of the passion that we saw the first couple of years (in soccer) wasn’t there. Consequently, his play leveled off a little bit and we didn’t see the same Mateo we saw the first couple of years.”
Vom Steeg, who was a star center back as well as a high-level scholar at UCSB in the mid-80s, knows all too well what Restrepo-Mejia was going through last season, and the challenges he faced in the classroom and on the field.
“There was no negative, it’s just one of the biggest challenges you face here being a student-athlete,” Vom Steeg added. “It’s how do you balance a really rigorous academic load with soccer?
“We had a conversation about him taking a quarter off, which he did. He went home for a little bit and really concentrated on his school work.”
But he wasn’t done with soccer.
When Restrepo-Mejia came back to the team for preseason training in August, Vom Steeg knew right away that one of his top defenders was ready to go again.
“When he showed up this year, you could tell right away he had trained all summer,” UCSB’s 21st-year coach said. “He had worked really hard over the summer since this was going to be his last year. I thought he came this year with a different attitude to really try to make something happen.
“When he got his opportunity, very similar to (his teammate and fellow midfielder) Sam (Fletcher), he made the most of it because he was prepared to step in.”
Restrepo-Mejia admitted that last season was tough, given all that he had going on, but that he grew from it, which has helped him immensely this season.
“There was some individual growth that I had to do, but I was happy to do it and come back stronger my senior year,” he said. “I’m so happy to be a part of this amazing team going into the Elite Eight and being able to play a big role for us.”