Six years ago, a Venezuelan soccer player gave Santa Cruz County youth soccer a special boost. Until then, if you wanted to play soccer here, your choices were school, AYSO or travel to Tucson for club play.
Ricardo Hinds, though, founded AZ Champs (AZ Champions Futbol Club) soccer in Nogales in 2005.
"We had about 200 kids in Rio Rico, Douglas, Tucson and Nogales, both boys and girls," Hinds said. "I have two daughters; one is 21 and the other 19. They both played soccer with me. We had a couple of girls' teams."
Hinds played soccer in school and has been involved in youth soccer for 16 years, he said. "It is passion. I love it."
Hinds is from Tucson and works in Nogales, Sonora, he said. "Don't ask me why, but I commute every day. Then, on the weekend, I live in the (soccer) park."
Altogether, there are about 100 players in AZ Champs this year.
AYSO just finished their season, Hinds said, and those kids want to keep playing. That led Hinds to expand AZ Champs with U-8 and U-10 teams this year.
"It is interleague, a recreational league," he said. "We are just starting this program and we have one U-8 team and two U-10 teams, Gold and Silver."
The U-10s are established and travel to Tucson and state-wide tournaments to compete, Hinds said. "The idea with these kids (U-8) is to have it in Nogales, so they don't have to travel."
There are about 16-18 kids on the U-8 team and 36-40 on the U-10 team, Hinds said.
The U-16 teams play club soccer year-around, with the exception of the winter high-school season. Arizona Interscholastic Association rules forbid high- and middle-school students from participating in soccer during the school seasons.
The high-school players will return to AZ Champs in February, Hinds said. "The goal for that group, because they play highly competitive, is to play the state cup in April in Phoenix. Then Phoenix goes to regional and regional goes to national."
The AZ Champs play a split season, due to the high-school season.
"We had a great first half," Hinds said. "We won the league in Tucson and we won one tournament in Phoenix. Now we're gearing up for the second half once they come from high-school."
That year-around play helps with high-school soccer. Varsity-level soccer skill comes from a mixture of youth soccer instruction, middle school and JV coaching, plus year-around club play. "The majority of kids (on the NHS varsity) are club players," Nogales High head coach Hugo Luna said. "They are coming in well-prepared, fit and ready to go.
"We have kids playing with all sorts of different clubs - Tucson Soccer Academy, AZ Champs, Premier - so we have a lot of experience," he added. "These are kids who are playing in good leagues and good tournaments throughout the year.
"That is what you need to be successful in high school. If you don't play year-around, you are not going to have a very good high school team."
Luna is also head coach at Premier Futbol Club, which held its first tryouts and player placement at Nogales High School June 7-8, 2008.
Hinds agrees. He said, "This is exactly why it is important. In order for the community soccer here to compete, they have to give it more time. We, as coaches, get certification. We are not just parents coaching. I have my national license. It is 10 days we spend learning to come back here and do it the right way."
Hinds is also a certified referee for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, he said.
AZ Champs Futbol Club belongs to the Pima County Junior Soccer League, which belongs to the Arizona Youth Soccer Association, which belongs to the United States Youth Soccer Association. "United States Youth Soccer Association belongs to USA Federation, which is the national US team that competes in the World Cup," Hinds said.
That training extends to U-16 players who want to coach, Hinds said. "I am doing that with four or five key players in U-16."
Alejandro Cota, 16, began playing soccer when he was seven. He plays on the AZ Champs U-16 Silver Team. Cota chose not to play high school soccer because he didn't want it to interfere with the AZ Champs., he said. In addition to playing, Cota helps coach the U-8 boys' team.
Cota also assisted coaching with U-12 boys in AYSO, he said, and his father, Guadalupe Cota, is assistant manager for the AZ Champs U-16 boys' team.
"Since he (Hinds) knew about me coaching in AYSO, he invited me to classes up in Tucson about coaching and being a referee. I attended some of those classes and they gave me a certificate," the younger Cota said.
Hinds has been Cota's coach for three years.
"He was a coach for the little kids in AZ Champs. Before he got in U-16, it was Adrian (Gonzalez) coaching us (U-14)," Cota said. "He is an excellent coach. He knows what he is doing. He invites us to classes for coaching, training and all that."
The team works hard in practice and travels to tournaments, Cota said. "We (the Gold Team) won first place in Patriot's Club tournament in Mesa."
Alec Lohr plays varsity soccer for Nogales High and is team captain for the AZ Champs U-16 Gold team during the off-season. A sophomore, Lohr has been playing soccer since he was a baby, he said.
He has been with AZ Champs under Hinds since 7th grade.
"I think of him as a good guy. He is always trying to push us to go for more, to go past our level, to always improve," Lohr said.
Club soccer has helped him, Lohr added. "Before club soccer, I wasn't as great a player. My friends who were in clubs told me to go into club because it really helps you. When I joined club, I noticed a difference and got better over time."
That helps the NHS team be better too, Lohr said. There are four AZ Champs on NHS varsity and three of them are starters, Lohr said. "The more practice, the better you get."
There are five coaches and eight assistants, including Cota, in AZ Champs, Hinds said.
"We get a lot of parent support as well," he said. "Adrian Garcia is the is the coach of the U-10 team that is traveling. He is dedicated. He has put a lot of effort and time into it.
"All the coaches are going through education too," Hinds added. The Arizona state (AYSA) coaching director will be at Pierson Jan. 22 to offer Y-1 and Y-2 coaching certification."
Y-1 and Y-2 is needed to work with U-6 through U-10 teams. The E, D, and C licenses are for U-11-12, U-14 and U-16 teams.
In the family
It runs in the family, Hinds said. One daughter plays for Pima Community College and the other plays co-ed recreational soccer. The youngest, Carolina, attends Pima. The oldest, Christina, is in her third year at the University of Arizona. They are roommates.
For Hinds, soccer takes up the majority of his time. "I work 40-48 hours and everything else is soccer - phone calls, watching games, registering kids. My daughters are helping me too. My youngest one wants to become a coach and she is in the process. My oldest one is helping with the administration."
Hinds is a single parent and is a project manager for Molex in Nogales, Sonora. Molex is a twin plant, Maquiladora Company, Molex de Nogales S.A. de C.V., with the headquarters in Nogales, he said.
Born in Venezuela, Hinds played soccer there in his youth. "Remember when my teammates were playing, I was pulled out of class to referee those games. Somehow I was good at it. Since then, I played soccer, came to the United States in 1981, went to school, went to college at the University of Southern Colorado and got my bachelor's degree in engineering in 1986."
When his daughters were four and five, Hinds began coaching again, he said.
Hinds began with AYSO in Tucson and eventually went to club soccer before forming AZ Champs here in 2005. He is also director of coaching for the Pima County Junior Soccer League, he said. "I have been involved, and my family, for a long time."
The AZ Champs are making history, with Nogales becoming more of a soccer center, Hinds said. "For the first time ever, two U-16 boys from Tucson, they actually play here, at the local sports complex (Ron Turley Field). We had an official game of the Pima County Junior Soccer League played here, rather than Tucson."