Pandemic-shortened season gave Christian Velarde a second chance to play college soccer
TULARE COUNTY – Christian Velarde has revived his once-promising soccer career thanks to an assist from College of the Sequoias men’s coach Renato Bustamante.
Velarde, a former Reedley High standout who hadn’t played college soccer since 2018, used the pandemic-shortened six-game season at Sequoias as a springboard to a second scholarship offer from NCAA Division II Fresno Pacific. He is expected to have three seasons of athletic eligibility remaining, Bustamante said.
“It’s a great opportunity to grow as a player and as a person,” Velarde said. “I’m going to relish the opportunity to play at the collegiate level and see where this can take me.”
Velarde was initially recruited to Fresno Pacific out of high school, following in the footsteps of older brothers Eric and Anthony after playing four varsity seasons at Reedley.
He redshirted in 2016-2017 before leaving the Sunbirds’ program, which at the time featured brothers Eric as an assistant coach and Anthony as a player.
Velarde ended up transferring to West Hills-Lemoore, where he scored one goal in 17 games during the 2017-2018 season.
Then Velarde walked away from soccer.
“When I graduated (from Reedley High in 2016,) I thought I could do this,” Velarde said. “Then life kinda hit me, and it wasn’t meant for me at the time.”
Velarde was attending, but not playing for, Reedley College when Bustamante took over as Sequoias’ coach in January 2020.
One of Bustamante’s first moves was reaching out to Velarde, whom he had known for seven years after playing with both of his older brothers at Fresno Pacific.
“When I got the COS job, I thought of local players who could make an immediate impact, and Christian had one year of JC left,” Bustamante said. “I’m very thankful he came to COS and has gotten his soccer career and education back on track. The kid has potential.”
Velarde’s familiarity with and respect for Bustamante helped convince him to give college soccer another chance.
“Renato is one of the best guys I’ve come across when it comes to soccer and his knowledge of the game,” Velarde said. “He helped me see the game through his eyes. He helped me progress as a player.”
Normally a fall sport, men’s soccer was pushed back to March and had its season reduced to six games because of precautions related to COVID-19.
Bustamante selected Velarde as one of his captains, and Velarde responded by helping lead the Giants to a 3-2-1 record by scoring one goal and contributing two assists.
“He was great. The short COVID season was what he needed to get back into the swing of things and get fully motivated,” Bustamante said. “He’s a fierce competitor with an admirable work ethic. He plays beyond his years and has a lot of potential to continue to play after Fresno Pacific if he gives himself the chance.”
Velarde had an assist in Sequoias’ season opening 4-2 loss to Bakersfield College on March 5. He scored a goal in the Giants’ 2-2 tie with Bakersfield on March 6, and added an assist as Sequoias closed the season with a 5-2 win over Allan Hancock on March 20.
“When I was back out there, I felt like I was a little kid again,” Velarde said. “All the joy to play college soccer came back. It was a really big stepping stone for me. Not just in soccer but in life. It was more than what I even expected. I played with energy and hunger, and hopefully I can continue to play with that moving forward.”
Bustamante was pleased to help Velarde continue his soccer and academic career.
“This is what it’s all about,” Bustamante said. “It’s a satisfaction to know a talented kid from the Valley is using his talent to improve his opportunities in life.”
Velarde, who hopes to play professionally as his brother Anthony did, said he plans to major in psychology and become a coach like oldest brother, Eric, who now leads the program at Reedley.
“When I’m done playing, I want to give back to the community of Reedley,” said Velarde, who currently serves as the Pirates’ junior varsity coach. “I want to give back to the guys and give them the stepping stone Renato gave me.”
Sequoias will launch its first complete season under Bustamante on Aug. 27 at home against Bakersfield College. The Giants will open Central Valley Conference play Oct. 1 at Fresno City.