The dream was SEC soccer all along. As Signing Day approached for then-Northeast Jones senior Esmeralda (Esmo) Figueroa in 2018, only one, Alabama, offered.
It wasn’t the right fit.
“It's crazy. I've always wanted to go SEC,” said the now-Jones College sophomore. “It was my dream to go right out of high school, but Alabama was my only offer. I knew if I went there, I wouldn't have an opportunity to play immediately. Then Coach Dolores [Deasley] offered me at Jones College and told me that she would get me ready to go SEC. I trusted her."
After a promising and successful freshman season, leading the Lady Bobcats to their third-straight MACJC title, another SEC offer materialized, this time from Mississippi State.
Figueroa’s sophomore season was going as planned, 17 goals scored, six games with multiple goals, two hat-tricks, and five assists in 16 games played.
Then came her injury, a tear to her ACL ligament, and what she thought would be the end of her dream to play in the SEC. But it wasn't. Mississippi State stuck by its scholarship offer.
"The injury was chronic and very surprising to me. As soon as I fell, I knew I was injured," said Figueroa. "The fact that Mississippi State still wanted me meant a lot. It was all God. It has to be."
After the injury, I thought there was no way, but God was working when I couldn’t see it.”
Last week, inside the McClellan Hall Media Room on the campus of Jones College, Figueroa, dressed in Mississippi State colors, put pen to paper.
“It’s a huge blessing. I give God all the glory for the talents He’s given me so I can perform in front of others and show them what He’s given me,” said Figueroa as she leaned on her solo crutch while wearing a knee brace. “I can’t say enough. It’s just a huge blessing. I didn’t think I’d be here after I tore my ACL. I thought it was all over, but He was working [behind the scenes] when I didn’t even know He was working.”
Figueroa's former soccer coaches at Northeast Jones, Matt Reid and Brooke Zugg, were on hand at the signing.
“It’s always been a dream of hers to play in the SEC,” said Reid. “She’s talked to me about it since she was in seventh-grade. To see it come true has been cool for me. It shows that a kid from Northeast can go play in the SEC if you work hard enough.”
“Esmo is one of those girls who knows what she wants and won’t let anything get in the way of it,” added Zugg. “In essence, it was easy for her to get where she wanted to go because she put in the work to get there. We were just there to lend a helping hand. Esmo put in all the effort.”
The lending hand, as said by Zugg, was more than coaching on the pitch, according to Figueroa.
“My coaches at Northeast Jones [Matt Reid and Brooke Zugg] prepared me for this day,” Figueroa added. “I was a different person in high school. They totally changed me and taught me about life. They taught me to study and showed me that soccer wasn’t all there was to life.
“Coach Reid taught me about responsibilities and working hard and training. And Coach Brooke was always there for me and telling me that I could do whatever I put my mind too.”
In her two year stint at Jones College, Figueroa scored 33 goals, five game-winners, and added 13 assists for a total of 79 points. She was named all-conference as a freshman and all-region as a sophomore.
"Esmo goes above and beyond," head coach Dolores Deasley said. "She is one of the most committed athletes I have ever worked with as far as preparing herself outside of the everyday team training. MSU is getting a great athlete and an even better person."
"There were a few smaller colleges and a few Division 1 schools that offered her right out of high school," Reid added, "but ultimately, she wanted to use Jones College as a stepping stone for something bigger. Jones College was perfect for her."
Now that Mississippi State has closed the deal on Figueroa, rehab lies ahead. Figueroa hopes to be out on the field for the Lady Bulldogs next season.
"I still have six or seven months of rehab. The Wellness Center, especially Joel Pierce, has pushed me,” Figueroa said. “It hasn't been easy, and at times it's been scary. I keep pushing because they tell me too.
“Mississippi State said they would help in my rehab process too. They've told me that they should have me ready to get back on the field in seven months."