Santa Catalina Island is less than 30 miles off the coast of Long Beach, and the 75-square-mile island, with a population of about 5,000, is geared for resort living. Although it may look like an idyllic place to escape to, it can feel like Alcatraz for an ambitious high school student-athlete.
Adalberto “Beto” Martinez is a captain on the football, basketball and volleyball teams at Avalon High— total enrollment, 400— and his dreams of studying math and playing football at the University of Southern California are a little harder to fulfill.
“It’s hard living on the island,” says the Avalon sophomore. “It’s not competitive here.”
The challenges facing Martinez are nothing new to Avalon High principal Cheryl Savio.
“Our kids are up against a lot of challenges because we don’t have access to things you would expect if you were going to a school on the mainland,” Savio said. “We have kids with the drive and desire, but living here is isolating for them. (Beto) is one of a kind with his drive and what he’s trying to accomplish.”
Without specialized coaching or participating in club showcases, Martinez is technically behind other mainland athletes his age. However, he also doesn’t have to deal with the distractions of the talent development industry, and he’s got an entire island supporting him.
“Our facilities may be a little different because we’re in a small town with limited space and funds, but an athlete is an athlete, and a dream is a dream,” Avalon athletic trainer and coach Andrew Hobbs said. “Some of the greatest names in the hall of fames have come from small towns, rural and humble settings where they practiced on a dirt basketball court. It’s about how much you want it, and if you can put in the work.”
Martinez was born in Long Beach, but he’s always lived on Catalina, and he has 75 direct family members in Avalon. His mom, Ana Belen Perez, knows that number off the top of her head because she’s always organizing family gatherings. It seems silly to call them reunions since they happen so often.
“We have a huge family, but this is a very small community, and if I’m not watching you someone is going to tell me what you’re doing,” Perez said. “(Beto) has a lot of support.”
Following in his older cousins’ footsteps, Martinez played a lot of sports growing up, but his first love was football. He started flag football when he was in third grade and a Pop Warner road game a few years later was his first experience on the mainland.
“It was cool,” Martinez recalled. “Once we started playing, I realized that this is reality. It’s harder over here, but we got used to it, and I wanted that.”
Back on the Catalina Express passenger ferry heading home, Martinez also remembers dreading docking in Avalon.
“It was kind of depressing,” Martinez said. “I like the relationships on the island, but for sports, it’s better over there. I knew then I didn’t want to live on the island my whole life.”
But, for now, his home is on the island, with his younger sister, brother and mother, who says she had to be Beto’s “mom and dad at the same time until his stepdad [Javier Jimenez] stepped in.”
Along with enrolling him in every sport she could find, Perez made sure to teach her son to enjoy the outdoor activities that island life had to offer.
“Kids here get involved with alcohol and drugs,” Perez said. “I was afraid that could happen to my kids. But we keep them busy all of the time.”
Catalina offers a wide range of activities for a young, athletic person; everything from running to snorkeling, hiking, biking, spearfishing and canoeing, to name a very few.
“But if that doesn’t interest you, or you never had anyone show you how, you’ll find yourself getting bored very fast in a resort community,” Hobbs said.
There’s very little time for Martinez to be bored. During the spring semester, he gets out of school around 3 p.m. and immediately goes to the football field to run routes and work on his speed. Martinez goes back to volleyball practice until 7 p.m., and then he caps his day by lifting weights with his football teammates before getting home around 10 p.m.
“He avoids stupid places,” Hobbs said of Martinez. “He does have guys looking out for him, but he’s chosen to hang out with those guys. We’ve got kids all over town who do some really stupid things at his age. He’s not perfect, and this stuff has developed more over the last two years.”
“The stuff he’s gone through has given him that mental strength,” Avalon football coach Michael Forcella said. “He’s someone that I see going places. He’s got goals.”
The 6-foot, 175-pound Martinez made a name for himself as a wide receiver with Avalon Pop Warner, and came into his freshman year at Avalon High ready to contribute to the team that had won a CIF Southern Section 8-man championship the year before.
“He begged me to play defensive back as well,” Forcella said. “And I told him he had to show it in practice. That’s when I started to see his crazy work ethic. He won the position by week three.”
The biggest challenge for Martinez was finding a leadership role as a freshman with his new squad full of experienced seniors.
“It was rough at the start,” said Hobbs, who is also an assistant coach. “Beto learned how to speak to older guys with respect while showing what he has by performing.”
Martinez scored eight touchdowns last season while the Lancers went 9-2 and reached the CIF 8-man Division 1 quarterfinals. Although he also plays basketball and volleyball at Avalon, Martinez said his number one priority is football.
“Here on the island, it’s such a unique situation,” Forcella said. “At a larger school, you have more dedicated players to one sport. One of the last things we want to do is [tell a player] to just focus on football. Beto is one of those kids who can handle a lot. You can put a lot on his plate and he handles it really well. That’s rare.”
Martinez fills his days on the island with sports, no matter what. He watches ESPN more than any other channel, his favorite movie is “Friday Night Lights” and his only recreational reading is online sports articles.
“Sports are my life,” Martinez said. Soon, that life will be able to flourish somewhere new.
“When kids graduate here it’s always scary,” Perez said. “They’re going to a new place to be with strangers. I think it’s going to hurt when I see [Beto] leave. He wants to go somewhere to catch his dream, and I’m going to support him no matter what.”