CHAMPAIGN – The dateline on this story says Champaign, but perhaps it should say La Paz, Bolivia.
That's where the subject – Mauricio Gonzalez – is right now. Unfortunately for me, you and The News-Gazette, the paper wasn't quite willing to foot the bill for an all-expenses paid trip for me and a photographer for our Area Tennis Player of the Year package. Thus, the Champaign dateline. But that makes the story no less interesting.
It began about a year ago, when Centennial boys' tennis coach Don Waybright undertook the routine task of checking his e-mail. One particular piece caught his attention, though he first thought it was a prank.
It said that two Bolivian tennis players – Gonzalez and his friend, Nicholas Oporta – intended to be at Centennial during the upcoming school year and planned to play tennis for Waybright's Chargers.
"We had lost David Ruedi and Quinn Miller and quite a few others, so I'm thinking it's a joke," Waybright said. "It sounded too good to be true. I was just about ready to delete it and I thought, 'OK, I'm going to bite on the joke.' "
So, he kept reading. At the end, Gonzalez asked Waybright if the coach remembered an older brother, Sergio, who had played for Waybright at Centennial.
That was nearly four decades ago, on Waybright's first Centennial tennis team.
Suddenly, the joke wasn't so funny anymore. This was real.
Gonzalez and Oporta did enroll at Centennial, and they both played for Waybright's team this spring, although Oporta – undefeated in 10 matches – had to return to Bolivia and couldn't finish the season. But Gonzalez remained, and he became the top singles player in the area.
Gonzalez compiled a 23-7 singles record, won the Big 12 Conference title at No. 1 singles and finished as the sectional runner-up, earning a bid to the state meet, where he went 1-2.
(This would be a good time to explain why there are no comments from Gonzalez in this story. Hours after competing in the state meet in Chicago on Memorial Day weekend, Gonzalez departed O'Hare International Airport on a flight to Bolivia. Centennial tried to reach Gonzalez last week to set up a Skype call for the Chargers' banquet but efforts failed ... as did my plea to the newspaper to fly me to Bolivia for this story. Never hurts to ask, right?)
Gonzalez's story, however, isn't just about tennis.
It turns out his father, also named Mauricio, is a noteworthy figure in Bolivia. How noteworthy? He has his own Wikipedia entry.
If you can believe what you read on the Internet, the elder Gonzalez is an oil company executive and president of the Bolivian professional soccer team La Paz F.C. His back story helps to explain why the younger Mauricio ended up at Centennial.
According to Wikipedia, the elder Gonzalez represented Bolivia in Junior Davis Cup competition and played tennis at DePaul. The entry also says he studied economics at DePaul and Yale and also attended Harvard Business School.
Three of his sons (all older than Mauricio) played tennis at Centennial, the most recent being Sergio. Though the father returned to Bolivia, he maintained a residence in Champaign, which allowed the younger Gonzalez to be eligible to play for the Chargers this spring.
"I think their main reason to come over was to get an idea about the United States and what school was like because I'm pretty sure Mr. Gonzalez is going to send Mauricio to a college in the States," Waybright said. "I think that was their primary focus."
Sport, it seems, is just one part of the family's culture. Waybright said the older Gonzalez clearly is a major soccer fan, and his resume suggests as much. While tennis was important to the youngest Gonzalez, it wasn't Mauricio's only interest.
"Mauricio is like his father," Waybright said. "He's very well-rounded. Educationally, he's a very sharp student. Tennis wasn't the only thing (for him). He realizes he wasn't going to turn pro."
Nor was he going to remain in the United States for, say, long enough for The News-Gazette to compile its Area Player of the Year story. But don't be surprised if you see him around Champaign again someday. And if you do, tell him The News-Gazette is looking for him.
Tony Bleill is a News-Gazette staff writer who has a lot of unused frequent flyer miles on American Airlines. You can reach him at 217-351-5605 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PLAYER YR. SCHOOL
Ryan Dyar Sr. Danville
Tyler Ellis Fr. Danville
Akshay Krishnamani So. Centennial
Alex Mestre Fr. Urbana University
Timo Rohrig Jr. St. Thomas More
Edo Roth Fr. Urbana University
Kendrith Rowland Sr. Champaign Central
Jake Schilling Sr. Centennial
Ryan Smith So. Champaign Central
Sam Wampler So. Champaign Central