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Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Updated: August 29, 3:14 PM ET
Hurtado excels in game of inches

By Lucas O'Neill
ESPNRISE.com

The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

What Al Pacino's character means by these words, part of the climactic locker room speech from "Any Given Sunday," is that sports -- like life -- are games of inches. When Westview (Beaverton, Ore.) senior soccer player Erik Hurtado listens to the speech before every big game, he gets that.

A sloppy pass, a poor trap, a flat cross - these minor things are often the difference between winning and losing. Hurtado has understood that part for a long time. But it's more recently that he's come to terms with the second part: that every action fundamentally influences the far more important game of life.

Erik Hurtado
Erik Hurtado was named the Class 6A Player of the Year after leading Westview to the state semifinals in 2007.

Hurtado had a literal appreciation for inches early on. When he entered high school, he was 4-foot-11 and barely 100 pounds. Even so, Hurtado's reputation preceded him. Westview coach Jim Lekas first caught wind of the future star as an eighth-grader. "I heard about this little tiny mosquito that buzzed around and buzzed the back of the net," Lekas says.

But as good as Hurtado was, he didn't have a game that translated to the high school level.

"While he had the skill, the savvy and the know-how, it was more of a physical game," says the 15th-year coach. "You can't hang on to the ball very long before you have a 230-pound senior back flatten you."

Learning to adapt to his diminutive stature forced Hurtado to master the fundamentals: ball control, shielding, trapping and heading. And it allowed him to take further advantage of his blazing speed.

"When I was little, I was a small guy, so I had to work on everything else," Hurtado says. "It came to my advantage because I know how to play against players who are taller and bigger than me."

As a freshman, that was pretty much everyone. Since then, Hurtado has grown into the state's top player, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound forward with a game that's equal parts skill, speed and power. Hurtado was named Class 6A Player of the Year last season after recording 20 goals and seven assists while leading Westview to the state semifinals. It's off the field, however, where Hurtado has had less tangible, but ultimately more important, successes.

Born in Richmond, Va., Hurtado grew up in Beaverton in a single-parent household. Like so many families in similar circumstances, it was often a struggle for Hurtado and his mom, Nikki, to make ends meet. When Erik was 11, the family -- which grew to include his dad (stepfather Geovanni), brother Kohl and sister Morgan -- moved to his stepfather's native Mexico. There, he found a culture that held futbol in almost as high esteem as life itself.

"I just kind of fit in perfectly down there because I love soccer," he says.

Indeed, the tagline on Hurtado's MySpace page reads "Futbol Es Vida" -- soccer is life. While in Mexico, he played every day for three hours, sometimes more, learning what he calls the Hispanic or "cheeky" style of play that emphasizes creativity and individual skill.

"It helped me because I got to play the Hispanic/Mexican style," Hurtado says. "But I also know how to play the American style [of power and speed]."

Not long after the family returned to the states less than a year later, Hurtado faced the challenge of adjusting to an upper-middle-class suburban high school as a bi-racial kid who'd spent most of his life without money to spare. The struggles manifested themselves in and out of the classroom. He strained to pay attention during class and frequently found himself in trouble. Even on the pitch, where Hurtado had always fit in, he didn't understand why he didn't make the varsity squad right away, and he says his attitude reflected that.

Lekas and assistant coach Dustin Whelden tried to impress upon Hurtado the idea that school success and character were just as important as goal scoring. He initially resisted, but Hurtado now credits his coaches' tough love with helping him mature.

Last fall, he took major strides toward becoming more of a team player. A nearly unstoppable force at center forward, Hurtado was frustrated early on by Westview's conservative style of play and with the tendency of opposing teams to hack rather than legitimately defend him.

Erik Hurtado
Erik Hurtado boasts excellent ball-handling skills and a scoring instinct.

But Hurtado eventually turned a corner. He became more unselfish on the pitch and more of a leader off it. Not coincidentally, Westview captured the Metro title outright for the first time and advanced to the state semifinals.

"We didn't get to the semifinals with any one individual," Hurtado says. "We did it as a team, and we wouldn't have gotten that far if everyone didn't put in the effort that they did."

All the while, Hurtado was starting to make strides in school and in the community. It wasn't an overnight transformation, but a gradual shift -- inch by inch.

"Erik has done a great job of making friends and still maintaining who he is -- his culture as an African-American young man and his identity with that," Lekas says. "What's very cool about Erik, he represents sort of an offshoot, soccer-wise, of the American Dream. Here's a kid that grew up not with a silver spoon in his mouth but the opposite."

Hurtado's busy summer demonstrates just how far he has come. First, he helped the Westside Metros club team advance to the semifinals of the U.S. Youth Soccer Far West Regionals in Hawaii, netting nine goals in five games. He then committed to soccer powerhouse Santa Clara. Next, he was named to the U.S. U-18 Men's National Team roster for a pair of friendlies in South America.

But the most important development of the summer came when he traveled to Africa as part of a mission to help a community in Rwanda. Hurtado helped build a house, rehabilitate a field and give out a hundred pairs of cleats to local children. He got to both reconnect to his roots and give back to the game he loves.

"He walked off that plane and he just looked different," Nikki Hurtado says. "He seemed to find a part of himself he just hadn't touched before." "It was definitely a life-changing experience," Hurtado adds.

One that underscored just how crucial every inch can be.

Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.