- Published on Thursday, 14 November 2013 22:58
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
As the wind chill factor dipped the evening temperatures to the low 40s, members of UTEP’s men’s soccer club went through their paces at University Field in preparation for their participation in the 20th annual NIRSA National Soccer Championships Nov. 21-23 in Phoenix.
This is the first time since 2005 that a University of Texas at El Paso team has earned a spot in the tournament.
“I’m really excited about this group,” head coach Jorge Hernandez said as his players warmed up before three hours of conditioning, situation drills and small-sided games under a dark, partly cloudy sky. “These guys have great talent and are committed. They brought the UTEP name to where it used to be and where it belongs among championship teams.”
Hernandez, who earned his bachelor’s (2007) and his master’s (2011) degrees at UTEP, played on the national tournament team as a center midfielder and spent one year playing for the El Paso Patriots soccer team. An accountant with his family’s restaurant chain by day, he serves as a volunteer coach on a team made up of freshmen to graduate students who represent most of the colleges.
The team, which participates in the Southwest Desert Conference, plays an eight-game schedule against the University of Arizona (Tucson), Arizona State University (Tempe), Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff), New Mexico State University, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (Socorro). The conference is part of NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation.
The club team is a student organization that was started to raise knowledge about soccer on campus and to unify those who share a common interest in the sport. The team has about 30 members and is open to any UTEP student.
The squad finished its season 4-3-1, but won both its games against the bigger, stronger Arizona and ASU squads in the regional Southwest Tournament last month in Socorro, N.M., to earn a bid in next week’s championships. The victories against the Arizona schools, including a previously undefeated ASU team, were especially satisfying to Miguel Cazares, a senior mechanical engineering major who has been on the team five years.
“The (ASU) win was incredible,” said Cazares, a forward and club vice president. “We had worked so hard and the rewards were worth it. I was crying on the field because it was so emotional.”
Club president Gregorio “Greg” Contreras said the team is peaking at the right time. He said the players, most who were raised in El Paso, Juárez and other communities in Chihuahua, Mexico, participated in numerous team-building activities on and off the field during the fall to create a family atmosphere, which helps at crunch time.
“We are playing our best soccer right now but we know our level of competition will only get tougher,” said Contreras, a defender who will be among the 21 Miners participating in the tournament.
The team also has spent time soliciting donations to help them with expenses such as food, travel, lodging, medical equipment and an additional jersey. The University gave the team $3,000 at the beginning of the fall semester to help with operating costs. Contreras said each player spends about $200 of their own money during the season to makes ends meet. Because of the upcoming tournament, the team has received promises for additional tournament-related funding from UTEP’s Student Government Association and Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs. They also have done some fundraisers at local establishments and hope to do a few more before the national championships.
After Phoenix, the club will continue to practice in anticipation of future tournaments, including one in Las Vegas in the spring and San Diego in the summer.
Those will be followed by tryouts to replace players who graduate or chose to not return to focus on their studies. However, only those students in good academic standing – 2.0 G.P.A. for players and 2.5 for club leaders – are eligible to travel with the team.
The players, especially the club’s leaders, are committed athletes seeking opportunities to grow, as well as dedicated students, said Andrea Vazquez, visiting assistant professor of theater and dance who is the club’s faculty adviser.
“They acknowledge the challenges of accomplishing quality work in their majors while demonstrating outstanding athletic performance,” Vazquez said. “I believe they will represent UTEP brilliantly.”