Soccer from the ground up

Staring at a line of trophies that would be awarded to those competing in the Oak View Youth Soccer League Finals on Sunday, Jose Luis Rodriguez couldn't help but think about how far the league has come.

The league founder and 17-year resident of Huntington Beach's Oak View community has seen the organization grow from the four teams it started out with in its inaugural 2003 season to about 30 teams and 700 boys and girls a year.

An estimated 700 people came out to the Oak View Elementary School field Sunday to watch the league's five championship games for players 6-and-under to 14-and-under.

"I can't believe the soccer league is what it is today," Jose said in Spanish with his son, Oscar Rodriguez, interpreting, "but I worked constantly with parents to bring their kids to play soccer, and that's how it began growing."

Oak View is a 92% Latino neighborhood bordered by Warner and Slater avenues, Nichols Lane and Beach Boulevard that's home to 10,000 residents, 32% of them below the poverty line, according to data compiled by Oak View Renewal Partnership, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 to improve living conditions in the community.

Oak View's soccer league is one of six or seven programs with which Oak View Renewal works. It was born out Jose's desire to have Oscar and his neighborhood friends have a nearby place to play organized soccer on the weekends.

When a 6-year-old Oscar first took up soccer, Jose would drive him and his friends to Santa Ana to play in a soccer league. With Huntington Beach and other nearby youth soccer leagues running $200 to $600 each season — not including gas expenses — many Oak View residents couldn't afford to put their children in organized soccer.

That's until Jose brought soccer to Oak View's backyard at Oak View Elementary.

It costs $5 to enroll in each of the two annual Oak View Youth Soccer League seasons. They run from July to December and January to June.

It took some work to make the league a reality. Oak View Elementary's field was being used for adult recreation leagues nine years ago, and with the help of Oak View Renewal Partnership, Jose got in touch with the city and Ocean View School District to get the necessary paperwork to get permits to use the field.

"It started out as just a father who had good intentions for his son, but that's about all he had at that point, as far the know-how of how to start the league," said Oak View Renewal Executive Director Iosefa Alofaituli, whose organization also helped the league get the necessary insurance coverage.

While Jose's thoughts revolved around bringing organized soccer to Oak View, he's seen the league have greater indirect impacts.

Oak View Renewal has seen childhood obesity drop over the years as the league has grown — from 38% to 23.6% from 2007 to 2011, according to data provided by Oak View Elementary and Oak View Preschool.

"It's not only for the kids to have fun, but also for them to be busy and not to get into gangs, help their health and lower their cholesterol," Jose said.

There's also been a drop in property damage from 2007 to 2011, from 84 to 64 incidents, according to data from the Huntington Beach Police Department.

"Sometimes bad streets are fostered by kids not having anything to do," Alofaituli said. "This was one of the first opportunities for people to trust a place where their kids can be safe, productive and be healthy, instead of just watching TV or hanging out on the streets."

It's also helped bring the Oak View community closer together, with fathers volunteering as coaches and helping to raise funds to cover the cost of the uniforms by seeking out business sponsorships with the help of Oak View Renewal.

"This community is now known for being friendly, since the soccer league and other programs have been here, whereas back in the day, it was known for its gang and its violence," Jose said.

When the league was founded, an 8-year-old Oscar didn't think much about the bigger picture — he just wanted to win. He did that, claiming two Oak View division titles with his team, and today the freshman at Cal State Long Beach can see just how important the league was to him — and still is to the entire community.

"It has benefited the community a lot," Oscar said. "Now you see kids running with their soccer ball, their soccer shoes and their uniform and not running with a spray can and other things that can lead to a different future."

As the league has grown, so has its reputation. It has begun to draw members from nearby communities because it's proven to be so competitive, Oscar said.

The organized competition at the youth level has also translated to success for the Seahawks, the Ocean View High boys' soccer team, which advanced to the CIF Southern Section Division II quarterfinals as a wild-card team after taking third in the Golden West League with a 14-9-2 overall record last year.

Over the past decade the Seahawks have had little expectation of success. They usually hoped just to beat rival Westminster High and avoid a last-place finish in league each season, Ocean View Coach Sean Oberbeck said.

"[Last year] was definitely a brand-new experience for me and a lot of the guys," said Oberbeck, who's been the Seahawks varsity coach since 2007 and estimates 75% of his team hails from Oak View's youth league. "The last time the team did that well was in the '90s. We hadn't set a goal for that because in the past, our teams hadn't had that kind of success, but looking back, we were meant to be there, and it showed we can compete with bigger schools."

Oberbeck said the culture change at Ocean View High has coincided with the development of the Oak View Youth Soccer League.

The improvement in the community's play on the soccer field is just part of what makes the league "the model program" of the several others Oak View Renewal Partnership works with, Alofaituli said.

"When we talk about how to maintain change over a long period of time, you can't depend on big organizations to do that," Alofaituli said. "It's the community pulling up their own bootstraps, per se; that's what we strive for. We're learning along the way, but I think folks are seeing a top-down approach doesn't work. It has to be driven from the ground up, and that's what this program is."

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