Thriving football program binds the community

For others, they see it as a last chance to showcase skills that they hope will open doors.

Even though the global pandemic has made the recruiting process more difficult – it wiped out the 2020 season – Dale isn’t worried the international recruiting pipeline will end anytime soon.

“We would love for the kids to visit campus if they can before entering because they can see where they’re going to be,” Dale said, recalling the days of VHS tapes and letter writing. “But these days there’s YouTube, it’s so much easier than it was when I was coaching 25 years ago. … It’s great for the coaches, but it’s really, really good for the kids.

The opportunities turned into playing time as international players like Oliver and Appiah became staples of the Matadors’ departure, the latter leading the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with 11 assists.

But while international talent sometimes steals the show from local culture, Yuma products, including Ernie Garza, are thrilled to have them as teammates instead of opponents.

“All of these different cultures within the team are really fun, exciting and new every day,” he said. “Because you have Japanese, Italian, French. You can count more and more than one hand. It’s really amazing, really a good experience overall for an American player.

Garza, who was cut from the squad twice in testing, made the squad for the first time in 2021. He sees the rise of international players as another incentive to work on his craft and put on football. Yuma on the map.

Kenneth Dale arrived at Arizona Western College in 2005 after several stints as a coach, most notably at Pepperdine University, where he helped lead the Division I women’s team. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Dale)

The different cultures and origins sometimes make chemistry a work in progress, especially when some are still honing their English skills. Dale sees this as just another part of his job, regularly checking translators and language teachers on campus to make sure his players are on the same page.

Among the different cultures and language barriers is a unique tool that unites them: music. The Matadors regularly celebrate wins like it’s New Years Eve, with each post-game festivity more rowdy than the last. Even the team bus isn’t immune, as the three-hour hikes to Yuma after games in the Valley are filled with festive chants, energetic techno hits, and rambunctious behavior, often led by Garza.

“They’re like little kids,” Dale said as he watched his players celebrate on the team bus after a recent 4-1 win over Scottsdale Community College.

A typical ride: various ethnicities singing Avicii songs in unison as Garza hammers the upper compartments, eager to eat after a big win.

On a recent trip, the landing spot was Whataburger. As the driver arrived at his destination, assistant coach Fabian Munoz Valencia jumped in to verify that the restaurant was still open and able to serve over 20 hungry soccer players in a matter of minutes. The players walked in, piled from book to door like sardines in a box, hungry and happy with their most recent triumph. They quickly order food and have dispersed in groups, with nationalities quickly finding their specific tables.

While Dale and Munoz Valencia spoke, Dale reflected on recent roster adjustments due to injuries.

“It’s like the gears of a watch. If one of them is off, all is, ”he said.

The analogy seemed trivial at first, but over time a scene began to unfold inside the restaurant. Once the factions separated, the players began to interact more: Frenchman Ridwane Boukraa chatted with his Japanese teammates, Ghanaian Michael Appiah joked with a group of Frenchmen and Garza distributed meals to other players. The scene turned into a melting pot of communication and camaraderie, much like the gears on a watch that Dale had described.

As Dale ate his burger and fries, he looked at his team, grateful for both their communication and their success.

“I thought to myself that if I want to have a long coaching career, I can’t want it more than the players,” he said.

About Jefferey G. Cannon

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