Whether or not you're a futbol fan, it's hard to comprehend just how much winning this year's boys 4A state soccer championship means for De Queen — both for the players and the community they live in. Some residents say the Leopards' win may have opened the door to a whole new era of understanding between native De Queenians and their Latino neighbors.
Two years ago, De Queen High School didn't even have a soccer team. Home to a Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant, De Queen has seen a huge influx — some less accommodating locals would surely call it an invasion — of Latino workers there in the last decade. Between the 2000 and 2007 U.S. Census, the percentage of those reporting their race as Latino in De Queen jumped from 19.7 percent of the population to over 28 percent — a figure that is probably low, due to underreporting by those without valid papers. They brought their love of soccer with them.
Judi Jenkins is the principal at De Queen High. She said that the student body has been interested in starting a soccer team for years now. A student project at the school led to a petition drive.
“They actually surveyed the kids, and determined that the majority of our kids wanted to play soccer,” Jenkins said. “They got some parents involved and presented it to the school board. We investigated it a little bit, and decided that we could play.”
While interest was high with students, the school had no soccer field, so the football gridiron became a quick substitute. The next hurdle was finding someone on staff who could coach the team.
That person turned out to be Stephen Sloan, a P.E. coach who was already doing double duty as the junior high football coach (the only one on staff who knew anything about soccer, Sloan had coached one semester of the game nine years before).With Sloan at the helm, the team's record the first season was a respectable 8 wins, 6 losses, 3 ties. Over the summer, however, he worked with his players on pursuing a more team-oriented approach, putting the emphasis on passing the ball over going for the quick score. The results were apparent from the first game they played.
“We played in a tournament called the Razorback Invitational,” Sloan said. “We beat some quality teams there, and I started thinking: This could be something really good.”
The team kept racking up wins, and was eventually kept from a perfect season only by a single loss to Clarksville. On May 9 in Fayetteville, the Leopards beat the Mena Bearcats to win the state championship.
“It was unbelievable,” Sloan said. “It was a dream come true to win a state championship. When I started out [coaching], I always hoped it would be in football, but now I've turned into just as much a soccer fan as I was a football fan.”
Erik Smith is the Leopards' volunteer assistant coach. His wife is from De Queen, and teaches there now. When she graduated from De Queen High in 1995, there was one Latino in her class. Now, her classes run around 70 percent Latino. As in many poultry-plant towns across the South, cultural differences left the native and Latino communities largely isolated from one another. As the soccer team started winning, however, Smith began noticing cracks in that wall. Even though 43 of the 45 players on the team are Latino, by the time the championship was in sight, Smith said, the crowds at home games were a good mix — white, black, brown.
“My neighbor is Hispanic,” Smith said. “And he told me: ‘You know what you're doing is that you're bridging the gap in our community. You're bringing the races together'… At the time, I thought, ‘whatever.' But then I started noticing it in the crowds. The crowds were not just Hispanic. It was all different [races].”
Smith said the changes for the players have been dramatic as well. Some had discipline problems at home and school before they started to play, and there were rumors of burgeoning gangs. Smith said that playing on the team has given the students something positive to work for.
“Lots of them are in poverty,” Smith said. “A lot of their parents work crazy shifts, and they're alone a lot of the time. This really gave them something to do.”
J.J. Lopez and Alberto Pacheco played on the championship team, and will be back for another season next year.
“It was great,” Lopez said. “We played together as a team, and it was an awesome experience.”
Pacheco said that while the turnout at their home games wasn't very big to begin with, their string of wins eventually began drawing crowds. “This year, we've been winning, and people kept coming,” he said. “We told everybody we were going to give them what they want, so we've got a bunch of fans now … All of De Queen came out to support us.”
Now that the season is over, Coaches Sloan and Smith are watching a lot of soccer on ESPN and looking forward to next year. With only four players graduating this spring, they're well placed for a strong run next year. A home soccer field at the school is on the drawing board, and the city is building community soccer fields nearby. Smith is heavily involved in the city's youth soccer leagues, where he said interest by players of all races is on the rise — a development he hopes will bring greater understanding between whites, blacks and Latinos in the future. While Sloan surely would like to win another championship next year, he hopes that his players' success on the field can be parlayed into brighter futures.
“A lot of [the players] don't think about going to college,” Sloan said. “We're actively trying to get them to start thinking: ‘I can play and go to college.' We're really hoping to have them go on and make something out of their lives, more than just expecting to go to work.”