Head Coach Daren Espinoza

Former Rialto, Citrus Valley baseball coach Daren Espinoza took on colon cancer with familiar energy 

REDLANDS >> Daren Espinoza has two words for cancer, but they are not fit for a family newspaper.

Espinoza in June of 2018 had a five-hour surgery where 18 inches of colon were removed, and his colon reattached. He was diagnosed with stage 3B colon cancer. “I felt scared, uncertain, angry and honestly thought I was going to die,” Espinoza, 53, wrote on Facebook. “It was the baseball version of the 0-2 count, fighting to get on base. But I had great doctors, and I told myself to still be me. I did my chemo, stayed on my workout path, doing my lifting and running six miles every day, even though my doctor told me to chill a little. But that’s not me. I don’t do chill.”

More than a year after that surgery and approaching Thanksgiving, the former Rialto and Citrus Valley high school baseball coach is not only thankful to be alive and for his staunch supporters, he is attacking life with vigor.

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He has had six colonoscopies in two years and cannot be declared free of cancer for three years, but the spring in his step is back.  “I think it goes back to how he was raised on the other side of Del Rosa (San Bernardino), which was not so great in the early 1980s,” said Espinoza’s friend, and fellow former coach, Frank Jimenez of Calexico. “Everything he’s done, he’s done on his own. I’ve never met anyone in my life with such a motor. He’s beyond a grinder. Every morning at 4:30 a.m., he’s at 24-Hour Fitness and running his 6 miles. He blows me away.”

As the coach at Rialto for 10 years and Citrus Valley for four, Espinoza regularly took teams with middling talent and molded them in his own 5-foot-7, 145-pound image.  Lean, tough and stripped down, the Knights and Blackhawks regularly vied with Citrus Belt League heavyweights such as Yucaipa, Redlands East Valley, Redlands and Miller for the title.

His 2017 Citrus Valley team won it all.  But by midseason 2018, Espinoza knew something was seriously wrong. By summer, he was under the knife for surgery. Shortly thereafter there were decisions to make. One was to give up coaching, a passion he had pursued for 22 of his 27 years in education.  “I had spent more than 20 years helping boys through baseball and in the classroom and it was the first time I started thinking about myself,” he said.

Soon after, he accepted a job as the English learner coordinator at Redlands East Valley High, where he now works.  He was undergoing chemotherapy at the time, the last two days of which were spent at his job carrying around an eight-inch long pack that provided a chemotherapy drip. Its medical name is fluorouracil, and its delivery system is both noisy and prominent.  “I was just starting school at REV, and I’m carrying around this thing that looks like a purse,” Espinoza said with a smile. “It has a box that looks like an old Sony Walkman and a long tube. It was impossible to hide.”

REV faculty and students just rolled with it and have been a steady source of support. So has Espinoza’s family, especially wife Yolanda Cervantes-Espinoza, who is the principal’s secretary at Carter High.  Cervantes-Espinoza views her husband in a different light than many.  “Most people see Daren as being a (disciplinarian) and an intense coach,” she said. “But they don’t see how much he cares for his players and the intense loyalty and love they have for him. He goes to their weddings and kids’ events — not for himself, but for them.”  Ramon Gudino agreed. He played for former Rialto coach Scott Russell and assistant Espinoza in the early 2000s.  “We were hard-nosed ballplayers whose parents were hard working and involved with their jobs and not always around,” Gudino said. “Daren was younger at the time and we related to him and respected him. We’d have run through a wall for him. He’s always been there for me.”

Daren time began in 2018. An estimated 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the United States that year, according to the National Cancer Institute, and more than 600,000 were expected to die. Colon cancer is the third most common form of cancer among men. But in 2016 there were also an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the U.S.

Espinoza by sheer good fortune and perhaps force of will is a survivor. By saying nuts to cancer and continuing to work out like a loon, he thinks he has the upper hand.

Recalled Espinoza of his diagnosis, “I was shocked and angry and very disengaged. Then I got over it. I had good doctors who were helpful and positive, and I thought about what I needed to do. I’ve always been an athlete and the ballplayer in me kicked in. I just said, ‘it’s 3-2 and the bottom of the ninth and I just need to fight through it.’”

So Espinoza runs. And lifts. He leads a guitar club at REV. He roots for the Dodgers and 49ers. He goes to Panera Bread on his days off. And he plays with his stepson Anthony Rodriguez’s pit bull Bino whenever he can.

In short, he is still Daren, the same no-nonsense task master with the heart of gold.

“He’s had a lot to go through, but I don’t have a doubt he’ll deal with it,” Gudino said. “Put a brick wall in front of him and he’ll figure it out. He taught us all that. We all think we’re pretty successful and it’s because of him. We took on his personality. We’re a part of Daren.”