Stanford's Lo'eau LaBonta Seizing Opportunity To Go Out A Champion

Jim Shorin/StanfordPhoto.com

Stanford senior midfielder Lo'eau LaBonta is not only the leading goal scorer for one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, she is the ultimate thorn in the side of UCLA, the team top team in the nation.

Plenty of situations could have presented themselves in the big-box store more than a decade ago that would prepared Mark LaBonta, a veteran sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department, better than the average shopper.

There could have been a shoplifter, a medical emergency, a call for crowd control or even an armed robbery. Things that might have left others confused or panicked would have put a police officer, if not at ease, at least in his element. All the years of training would have prepared him to handle those things.

None of those things happened. Instead, off duty and with his daughter, Lo'eau, and her younger brother, Koa, waiting for him at home, Mark stood a very uncomfortable middle-aged man amid a vast expanse of girls clothes, the racks of undergarments in front of him as foreign, and perhaps potentially hazardous, as the poison darts and oversized boulders in an Indiana Jones movie.

Soon to enter middle school, Lo'eau had reached that stage in life when a bra became a necessity.

So there stood Sgt. LaBonta on a shopping expedition for which he was wholly unprepared.

"I walked around and found the oldest clerk I could find and told her my problem," Mark recalled.

In such a moment, and in a thousand more like it, resides the difference between a father and a dad, a distinction Lo'eau once described in a Father's Day message to him. The former was an individual whose association could have ended as soon as she entered the world. The latter is the person with whose support she will soon enter what people call the "real world" with a Stanford degree. And if she has anything to say about it, with a second national championship on the soccer field.

Courtesy of Lo'eau LaBonta

The relationship between Stanford's Lo'eau LaBonta and her father, Mark, has been one of mutual admiration, for the sacrifices the LAPD sergeant made as a single dad and for the hard work that has led the Cardinal's top scorer to her success on the field.

"It's amazing how much he has done for us," Lo'eau LaBonta said. "He's my dad, he's my hero, he's my inspiration. I mean, I brag about this guy all the time."

Given what Lo'eau does on the soccer field for the Cardinal, the boasting is mutual. As Stanford opened its NCAA tournament on Friday against Cal State Fullerton with a 5-2 win, the senior midfielder is not only the leading goal scorer for one of the field's four No. 1 seeds -- a team with just one loss after playing arguably the nation's toughest schedule -- she is the ultimate thorn in the side, or perhaps the heel, of the team that seems as impervious as Achilles. She is at her best in what has become one of best rivalries in college soccer.

Counting the final game of the 2012 season, UCLA has allowed 14 goals in its past 43 games. It is next to impossible to score against the Bruins, yet one player is responsible for four of those 14 goals. Lo'eau scored both of Stanford's goals in a 2-1 come-from-behind win in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal in 2012. She scored in the 89th minute to tie the game in the first meeting between the teams a season ago -- her first two touches off a long cross were immaculate when they couldn't be anything less -- only to see the Bruins win in overtime. She scored on a long blast a month ago that put the Bruins behind for just the second time all season before they erased the deficit with two late goals.

No wonder she gets her due from those same rivals, including perhaps the best defender in college soccer.

"She's amazing for Stanford; she's an amazing soccer player, and I definitely respect her a lot," UCLA All-American Abby Dahlkemper said. "She comes in clutch at the right moments. I mean, I remember my sophomore year, she single-handedly scored the two goals to kick us out in the Elite Eight. I just think she's a really dangerous attacking midfielder that brings a lot of energy and is super dangerous when given the opportunity."

Giving her opportunities was almost the sole focus of Mark as a single dad. Lo'eau and Koa's mother was a sporadic presence during their early years. She eventually faded out of their lives almost altogether before Lo'eau was a teenager. Even now they don't always know where she is. She will call her children from time to time and leave voice mails, and they keep in touch with extended family on her side in Hawaii, but Lo'eau said the last time she saw her mother was four years ago at her high school graduation, an appearance as awkward as it was surprising. Whatever the reasons and whatever the history, reality as Lo'eau experienced it growing up was one shared with only her dad and her brother.

Courtesy of Lo'eau LaBonta

Giving Koa, left, and Lo'eau, center, all the opportunities to succeed in life was almost the sole focus for Mark LaBonta as a single dad.

That meant living by the rules of a police officer whose approach to parenting was shaped in part by knowing full well the details of worst-case scenarios.

"Bringing them up, I was kind of a hardass dad," Mark said. "I was very strict because I knew all the bad things that could happen to kids. If I had to go back again and do it a little differently, I probably wouldn't have been as strict. I'd probably try to be more of a friend, but that was my only way of survival, of getting us through it."

It required sacrifices more substantial than the embarrassment of asking a sales clerk for help with training bras.

A very young Lo'eau once charmed her way out of trouble after she dialed 911 when she briefly couldn't locate her dad in their home. She hung up almost immediately, having located her dad, but an officer still responded to the call that Mark never knew she made. On the hot seat for lying about the call, Lo'eau plaintively explained that when she hadn't been able to find him, she tried to call him "at work." But in the end, his primary responsibility was always to protect and serve the two people waiting for him at home.

At one point Mark did field work, internal affairs surveillance assignments, that necessitated he hire a nanny for the children. But no matter how good the person in question, he was always uncomfortable leaving the kids. While both were still young, he moved to a more administrative position to better accommodate his life. Even then, he had to make a decision more than a decade ago to follow a career path that offered work-life flexibility at the expense of a promotion track toward lieutenant. He would wake up closer to midnight than dawn so as to be done with work in time to pick them up from school, check on their homework, feed them and shuttle them to assorted practices and games.

He couldn't just be a father; he had to be a dad.

"A father is just the head of state, the head of the house, kind of like my dad was," Mark said. "I call him dad, but he was more the father type -- the guy that went to work, came home, sat down and ate dinner with us and that was pretty much his input. The mom kind of ran the family and had all the stuff to do with the kids."

Just as Lo'eau's time on the college soccer field is winding to a close, so too is Mark's time juggling all those roles. Old habits die hard, of course.

After a game this season at Arizona -- where the Cardinal took a 2-0 halftime lead, including a goal from Lo'eau  just 46 seconds in, but had a sloppy second half and had to pull out an overtime win -- Mark lectured Lo'eau at length about the team losing its focus and her responsibility as a captain to make sure letdowns didn't occur. She listened to all of it, then told him that she had just heard the same lecture from coach Paul Ratcliffe.

Furthermore, the suggestion went, as a 21-year-old woman in her final year at one of the nation's most prestigious universities, she might just merit grown-up treatment.

All he could do was laugh. It was the tears that used to get him when Lo'eau was young. When the first tear tumbled down her cheek, he invariably caved on most any dispute. But there weren't tears in that moment in Tucson, just a young woman's exasperation after a long night of soccer and a longer night of lectures. He conceded. Or at least compromised. He knew she wasn't a child anymore, he told her, but she would always be his child.

"Nobody just loves their parents the whole time," Lo'eau said. "You're not always going to like them, especially in your teenage years when they say no on something. But it's just that everything makes so much sense to me now, looking back, and why he said no and kept us in line. If he would have just let us be free and run off like a lot of the kids from our city do, there's no way I could have ever achieved the goals I wanted to achieve when I was a little girl."

It is the paradox of parenting that successfully raising kids to be independent ultimately leaves a home quiet and empty. Mark noted, with just a trace of the implied guilt that is universal to parents in such circumstances, that he doesn't see her all that often these days. Managing both soccer and school keeps her busy. But when she is home, she will often ask if he wants to go to a nearby soccer field and let her take some shots against him. Perhaps it's part of an obsession with the sport that began early and burned hotter than it did with softball, baseball, basketball or any of the other sports she played. Perhaps it's an elite athlete's desire to make the most of every free moment.

Or perhaps, given that age will take its toll on anyone's goalkeeping skills, she just likes to be with her old man on a soccer field and savor that world for a while longer.

Time and again she has shown a knack for making the most of an opportunity when it comes on the soccer field. Soon will come the opportunity that mattered all along.

The opportunity to make her own way.

"In my mind, I know she can do it," Mark said. "She's very independent, she's intelligent, she's street smart and has a lot of common sense. But on the other hand, there she goes off to her next step. Next thing I know it's going to be marriage and kids, hopefully, down the road. But I'm excited for her. A little nervous, but totally excited."

As a dad would be.

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