When the under-11 Healdsburg Hounds boys' soccer team takes to the field this fall, they'll have many things going for them.
The squad went undefeated in its division last year and will be moving up in the Healdsburg Youth Soccer League to play tougher teams.
But off-field accomplishments in the classroom and in career development will likely help the team kick things into gear.
Much of the credit, league officials and parents say, goes to the team's two volunteer coaches, Gustavo Flores and Angel Nu?z.
For the past three years, the men have dedicated their free time to creating a program that puts good grades and parental involvement before sprints and goal kicks.
The program stems from the coaches' shared belief that success for the kids relies on effort and support on the field and off.
"Kids love this game," Flores said, "and you don't want to take that away from them. But this sport is only a blip on the radar when it comes to life. You want to use it to instill the value of education, the value of becoming a good citizen."
Flores, a Santa Rosa resident and director of admissions at Sonoma State University, grew up with the game and played for California State University, Stanislaus.
Nu?z, a Healdsburg accountant, Sacramento State alumnus and lifelong baseball player, met Flores by chance when their sons played on the same team five years ago.
They got to talking about something that bothered them.
"I was disappointed by the gap between parents, soccer and academics," Nu?z said. His wife, a Healdsburg teacher, had told him that attendance at Back to School Night couldn't compete with a weekend soccer game. "I said, 'Hey, we've got to bridge that gap.' "
The first year, they gave their nearly short-handed team an unusual assignment: bring your report card to practice.
The two coaches, both 43 and now fast friends, laugh about that bold move.
But it caught on, as did an annual series of field trips to Sonoma State University, where the boys watch the men's team train, tour the campus and hear a discussion about admissions and the need for good grades.
Prodded, the coaches will brag that all of their players have at least a B average.
"We've got to do our homework, and then we do the drills," said defender and goalie Mel Alonso.
The emphasis on academics is especially geared toward the majority of players on the team that come from Latino households, who might not have equal experience with collegiate education.
"I want these kids to come away with a sense of, 'I want to be a doctor or a lawyer,' " Flores said. "As long as they have a sense of belief and inspiration in themselves."
The approach has been welcomed by parents, many of whom come along on the trips or chip in at practice.
"Morals, sportsmanship, the lessons of life. That's an aspect not all coaches are thinking about," said parent Annie Holden, offering her praise.
Maria Cervantes said her boy Jorge "comes back from the team trips and tells me all these things." He wants to be an engineer or architect, she said. "He's very happy."
Healdsburg league officials say they'd like to see the program replicated for more of their youth squads. The coaches are working with the league to develop an after-school tutoring center for players.
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