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King Chavez Vaqueros use soccer as vehicle to unite Logan Heights community

02/17/2013, 10:47am PST
By Craig Malveaux

Soccer program serves as beacon of light in dark neighborhood.

Omar Hamadi (right) drives the ball down field during King-Chavez High School's soccer game against High Tech High.

Inside the Logan Heights community, there is a small beacon of hope. A safe haven of sorts free from outside influences and packed with positivity, entertainment and, most importantly, soccer.

“Literally 200 yards away from here is memorial park where there are a lot of gangs around. It’s been documented that this isn’t the safest neighborhood,” said King Chavez Athletic Director Jason Gentile.

“But we provide a spot where people can come to, know that they’re safe and enjoy a soccer game safely. Soccer is kind of the heartbeat for this neighborhood. They see that there is a really positive thing happening here four to five nights a week and on game nights.”

He’s referring to Memorial Middle School field, where the Vaqueros (17-0-2), who clenched their third consecutive Frontier league title, play their home soccer games.

A tiny school located in downtown, King Chavez Charter doesn’t necessarily have a field of its own to call home. However, the Vaqueros have made due with their situation, practicing and playing games at Memorial, where the clumpy dirt-and-weed-patched field presented a less than ideal playing surface.

“It doesn’t matter where we play. As long as we can play somewhere, we can make it happen. Certainly, it isn’t the smoothest or absolute best, but we’ve embraced it,” said coach Kyle Hagenburger.

“This is our home.”

It’s home to the community as well. Comprised of kids from Logan Heights, King Chavez hosts families, neighbors and kids at their night matches, bringing the community together under flood lights to cheer on and support their boys in forest green and orange.

Just last week, King Chavez had their homecoming game against High Tech High in front of a couple hundred roaring fans. They sung. Cheered. Chanted, “Vamos! Vamos Vaqueros! Esta Noche! Tenemos Que Ganar!” And banged drums as the Vaqueros — boasting their first senior class in school history — defeated the Bruins 2-0.

“We’re a consistent bright spot in the neighborhood for the winter months. Anyone can come out and watch us play. It’s safe and positive and it’s entertaining,” Hagenburger said.

“There are middle school kids and younger kids that will come up to me and Jason and say I want to be a part of that. I want to go to your school and be a part of that. That’s a lot better than the other options that exist just down the block from here.”

It’s been a process, though. King Chavez opened up four years ago and began building up their athletic programs — soccer especially — with freshman boys. Hagenburger took the kids, who had already been introduced to soccer, and molded them into a team based on trust and selflessness.

They played on three different fields until finding a permanent place — Memorial. From there, Gentile and Hagenburger wanted to field at least one night game to begin the process of changing the perception of Logan Heights and establishing a safer environment.

Soon, success found the Vaqueros. In the second year, they won their first league title and now boast a 45-15-5 record in three years as a varsity program. The victories and team aspect brought more and more supporters and fans. Soccer has been the vehicle.

“The kids have built a foundation for something in the future,” Gentile said. “It’s much bigger than soccer. We really are a light in the middle of the night, something that maybe didn’t exist before in a, normally, pretty rough neighborhood.”

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