Neighborhood soccer team grows deep roots and provides a long-lasting impact
About ten years ago, Sami DiPasquale, our executive director, spent an evening kicking around a soccer ball with some of the neighborhood elementary school kids at the St. Clement’s gym. They had such a great time, they decided to meet again the next week.
Well, news gets around fast, especially when a good game of soccer is involved, and pretty soon Sami and 20 kids were meeting every week to play a pick-up game. None of them could have foreseen the future impact that this humble beginning would have on so many young men and the vision it would birth for their neighborhood.
It all starts with an idea
After months of enjoying the pick-up games together, some of the kids started asking about the possibility of playing like a “real team” in a competitive league. By this time, college student Matt Mletzko was helping with the soccer games, and another adult volunteer, Tom Beeman, had been providing water and snacks at the games.
“The boys were asked to come up with a name and they decided on ‘Sun City Wolves’,” says Tom. “One boy’s father designed the Sun City Wolves logo, a black wolf howling in front of a yellow sun on an orange background. From there, the team was born!”
Matt signed them up to play in one of the city leagues and ordered all of the jerseys and equipment necessary with the help of a few generous supporters. The Sun City Wolves became an official team from the downtown Rio Grande neighborhood in a city league.
Developing players — on and off the field
The first couple of seasons were definitely a little rough for Ciudad Nueva’s first neighborhood soccer team. They needed time to develop and grow together, but they enjoyed each other’s company, making many memories and deepening friendships along the way.
Around this time, Matt moved away to attend college and David Kauffman joined the coaching staff, setting the team up in the El Paso Christian Soccer League. This league allowed boys ages 14 and up to play, expanding the number of neighborhood kids who could be involved. At the same time, a few boys who played varsity soccer at the neighborhood high school joined the Sun City Wolves.
“The league, we later found out, was made up of older boys and men with a lot of experience,” says Tom. “Again we were beaten quite badly, but our spirit was good and the boys were really challenged to improve.”
With more practice, the boys improved to winning many season tournaments, including taking 1st, 2nd, & 3rd place over various years. Ivan Torres, a UTEP student with extensive soccer experience, joined on as coach. He and Tom, who was nicknamed Papa Wolf, consistently worked with the boys until around 2014, when several of the boys graduated high school. The young boys were growing into young men. Some went to college or sought employment and some got married and had kids.
Leaving a soccer legacy
After that, the team changed to to an indoor league and later to a 7-on-7 league because so many had moved on. Coach Ivan was overseeing dozens of teams playing competitively four evenings per week. A group of the “Senior” Sun City Wolves continue to play every Thursday night with the 7-on-7 league, and most recently, in the spring of 2018, they won the 1st place trophy in the league.
One team member, Ernesto, who still plays with the Wolves today, tells of how the team affected his life at a crucial time:
“Back in 2008, one of the worst events in my life occurred. I lost my father and was close to losing my brother. Even though we moved to central El Paso to live with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, we still felt pretty lonely. We had to change schools and didn’t know anyone. Two years went by, and we still felt a big hole in our hearts. I personally felt empty. I’m the oldest of my siblings, so I had to act strong, but I still felt alone.
“Then, during my freshman year in high school, I was attending one of Ciudad Nueva’s youth programs, and I was invited to play for their neighborhood soccer team, the Sun City Wolves. That’s when I met three of the most important, amazing, and incredible people in my life. I thank God for these men every day: Joe Gavaldon, Mr. Tom, and Sami DiPasquale. They’ve helped me countless times and are always there when I most need them. Thanks to them, I found a family in a place where I least expected. I met friends that later on turned into brothers, and I still keep in touch with them eight years later.
“I have all of this because every Saturday Mr. Tom would be kind enough to pick up a bunch of high schoolers that wanted to just play and have fun. I’m really thankful to God for letting me be part of that amazing team. I still play for the team, because honestly, without them, I don’t know where I would be today.”
All of the players but one graduated high school, and this one young man is a supervisor in a warehouse. Some went on to be engineers and are now employed by a major oil refinery. Others went to trade school and became successful in fields like diesel mechanics. One is running his own surveying crew with a major construction company. All are gainfully employed and many are now fathers of their own young families.
Looking ahead to the future
“These young men were given the opportunity to spend time with healthy role models who cared for them no matter what,” says Coach Tom. “The result was that a group of kids who were otherwise statistically disadvantaged and predicted to not graduate high school became productive men in our society. Several boys stated they were on the wrong path until they joined the Wolves.”
The experience was as meaningful for the coaches as it was for the players.
“The Wolves helped me become a better leader, and I gained much perspective on how young individuals cope with adversity through healthy outlets,” says Coach Ivan. “At the end of the day, what you teach them from a coach and mentor perspective is nothing compared to what they teach you as both a group and as individuals. I am very proud of the men they have grown to be, and I cannot thank them enough for allowing me to be part of their journey.”
The legacy of the Sun City Wolves still lives on as its former members continue to play and to be positive role models in their own communities. In addition, a new generation of soccer players will soon be impacted through a new neighborhood league, open to girls and boys, kindergarten through 5th grade. Keep an eye out for some exciting news about th
e Upward Soccer League coming soon to our downtown neighborhood.
Are you passionate about soccer and about making an impact on young people’s lives? Click here or call 915.521.2951 to get involved now. We would love to see you on the field!