She’d been an All-CIF soccer player at Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, leading her team to two CIF championships. She’d then broken scoring records in her freshman year at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, made first team all-conference and was on her way to the successful soccer career she’d envisioned.
“I thought,” said Yazmin Montoya, “that I was on top of the world.” With an embarrassed grin, she added, “It kind of blew up my head, because I thought I was the one achieving all of this.”
But in her sophomore year, the goals didn’t come for the West Covina native, no matter how hard she tried. Her frustration mounted — not good for someone whose entire identity, she admitted, was wrapped up in being a soccer player. What to do? How about a little conversation with God?
“Through prayer,” said Montoya, “I realized that God was making me take a step back, that he was telling me, ‘Remember who your creator is. I was the one who gave you these gifts, to play soccer, to work hard, to enjoy life.’ That was a real wake-up call.”
So was the conversation she had with her new friend, one of the few people who regularly attended every women’s soccer game, one who also happened to be a missionary with Varsity Catholic, a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
“She asked me one day if Jesus Christ was at the center of my life,” Montoya remembered. “Yes, I said, of course he is. She invited me to a deeper relationship with Jesus, and to share that relationship with others.”
Today, just three years later, 22-year-old Montoya is a Varsity Catholic missionary herself, serving at the University of Oklahoma — and, she said, “on fire with the desire to spread Jesus’ love.”
‘Where God wants me to be’
Norman, Oklahoma, is known as home of one of the nation’s perennially strong collegiate football teams, but not necessarily as a hotbed of Catholicism. Yet Montoya seems no more daunted by the challenge of campus missionary work than she was by opposing goalies on the soccer field.
“I really believe this is where I need to be, where God wants me to be,” said the outgoing young woman, taking a break from the orientation week activities preceding the start of the fall semester. “We want these students to know the fullness of Jesus’ love.”
During the 2017-18 academic year, Montoya will be one of 158 Varsity Catholic missionaries (most, like her, recent college graduates) serving on 97 campuses as part of the FOCUS outreach. Founded in 1998, FOCUS invites college students into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, equipping them for Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendships, and (in some cases) to pursue parish work and/or religious vocations.
Varsity Catholic missionaries (like Montoya) mentor Catholic athletes, teaching them to glorify God in their sports and daily lives. As the only Varsity Catholic missionary on the FOCUS team at Oklahoma, Montoya will work with Catholic student-athletes already involved in Bible study, faith-sharing and other activities, including daily Mass at St. Thomas More University Parish.
“And we will invite others to participate, Catholic or not, to talk about faith,” she said. “Our goal is to lead and teach others on the faith, just as I was at Louisiana. The Lord blesses us as athletes with a platform to glorify his name. Our talent is a gift — and no gift is perfect until given back to its giver.”
It was a lesson she learned the hard way, though one for which she was well prepared.
‘My parents instilled excellence’
The middle child born to Carolina and Fernando Montoya (both teachers in Baldwin Park Unified School District), Montoya attended St. Christopher Church and School, thriving in the disciplined Catholic school environment. “I liked the strictness and the order,” she said. “I loved religion class and going to Mass, and having faith incorporated into school life was a real blessing.”
What she loved most, though, was playing soccer, which came to her easily but at which she worked harder and harder as she excelled in youth level play. “My parents always instilled excellence,” she said. “Anything you were doing in every part of your life, you were going to do your best. And in my mind that meant you always had to be the best.”
Which she often was. In four years at Bishop Amat, Montoya scored 45 goals and 48 assists, helped the Lancers win four league championships and CIF titles (2010 and 2012) and twice was named first team All-CIF.
And when, during a tournament in San Diego, the Louisiana-Lafayette women’s soccer coach approached her, invited her to visit the campus and offered a full scholarship, “I thought it was God’s will for me to continue doing what I’d been doing.”
But God’s will, if that’s what it was, involved more than soccer, which became clear in that difficult sophomore season when Montoya scored but seven goals (after setting a school record with 13 as a freshman).
And so came the encounter with the Varsity Catholic missionary, which turned Montoya’s perspective on soccer, and life, in a whole new direction — from “I’m having fun and compiling stats” to “God gave me these gifts, and my obligation is to use those gifts for him and his glory.”
“My missionary challenged me in my faith; she told me my identity relied solely on the fact that I was a beautiful daughter of God. Experiencing this freedom from always feeling like I needed to succeed to maintain who I am, I wanted to share this with my team.”
As team captain, Montoya invited her teammates to pray with her before the start of practice, “the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” Only five of 33 girls joined her, but the number gradually increased. “By the end of my senior year, the whole team was praying together, before and after every practice and game. It’s amazing how praying gives you strength and courage.”
Even getting up at 5 a.m. to practice, she said, was no longer a chore, but “an opportunity. I got to wake up and work with my teammates and use my God-given gifts, to push them and myself to do better on and off the field, to love others like he wants me to.”
In her senior season, Montoya was named to Sun Belt and All-Louisiana first teams and became the Ragin’ Cajuns’ career leader in goals and points. She also was named Louisiana-Lafayette’s 2016-17 Female Student-Athlete of the Year and — having graduated last December majoring in exercise science — received a graduate assistantship, hoping to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.
“But,” she added with a chuckle, “God had a bigger purpose ... for me.”
‘God is calling me now’
During her spring semester of grad school, the Varsity Catholic missionaries encouraged Montoya to join them in their work. She attended a FOCUS interview weekend.
“I said, ‘I need to do this. These people love Jesus and want to bring the good news to everyone. I have to do this.’ ” Reaction to her choice was “mixed.”
“People thought, ‘You’re going from free education and smooth sailing to missionary work?’ Yes, I said, God is calling me now,” she recalled. “And a lot of prayer and tears were involved in my decision, but I am happy.”
When she told family and friends on her visit to California earlier this summer what she wanted to do and why, “they saw my passion, and they agreed with me. They said, ‘I can see it in your eyes.’ ”
St. Thomas More, she said, “is an amazing parish community, with packed Sunday Masses. And the amazing people I get to work with and walk with on their journeys really pumps me up to give it my best effort.”
The passion, discipline and competitiveness Montoya brought to the soccer field taps into her new work. “My missionary at Louisiana-Lafayette got me into praying the rosary a couple times a week,” she said. “And being disciplined to excel in sports helps me make the time to attend Mass and holy hour daily.”
Measuring the success of her work won’t be the same, she knows, as checking the stat sheet for goals and assists. “That’s okay. We can fool ourselves into thinking we can actually measure the results of our missionary efforts.
“Really, it’s in hearts transformed: Are they on fire for Jesus? And you don’t always know that right away. But it’s better to have one on fire than six who are lukewarm. We want to be spirit-led in our work, and that means having faith and trust. I am so excited to be here.”