A match made in heaven – and on the soccer field
How a private high school and public university kick-started a partnership to help both reach their goooooals!!!
By Dan Vaccaro
You don’t need much equipment to play soccer – a ball, of course, and two of just about anything else to serve as goal posts.
But what you do need is a place to play.
For the boy’s and girl’s soccer teams at Arrupe Jesuit High School in northwest Denver, finding a field has been a longtime challenge. The urban, college-preparatory school, which serves predominantly low-income students, has a remarkable mission and 95 percent graduation rate, but no athletics fields.
“To be honest, there have been times when I’ve lost sleep over where we would play our games,” recalled John Pimmel, the director of athletics and activities at Arrupe Jesuit, and the head of the girl’s soccer program. “We’ve had to settle for almost any piece of lawn we could find.”
He ticks off where the teams have practiced and played over the last decade: a slanted pitch near a local lake, where balls were routinely kicked into the water and needed to be fished out; a field 30 minutes from the school, which meant more travel and less practice time; and even a green space between two buildings at a local high school across town.
Last spring, things hit an all-time low. Injuries were rampant. Bad weather led to several rainouts and because of scheduling difficulties, the girl’s team played six matches in six days.
That decadelong dilemma came to an end this fall, when Arrupe Jesuit and MSU Denver formed a partnership that would allow the high school teams to play at the University’s award-winning Regency Athletic Complex.
The boy’s team competed at the RAC during its regular season games, while the girl’s practiced and played independent league matches there. The teams pay the standard rate to rent the space in order to comply with NCAA guidelines.
“To go from where we’ve been, to playing at a world-class facility and having a consistent place, a real home field, it’s been an almost transcendent experience for the students,” said Pimmel.
Erick Molina, a senior and captain of the boy’s team, concurred.
“It’s a beautiful place to play. The views are amazing,” said the center midfielder. “And the fields are so much closer to school. That means we have more time in classes, plus our friends and fans can come support us.”
This fall was the first time some of the students had ever heard their name called over a loud speaker or the roar of a big crowd after a goal, said Pimmel. Most had never felt the exhilaration of running full speed on flat, sturdy and predictable turf.
Pimmel recalled past games with 10 fans gathered on the sidelines. The last match of this season, which was also senior night, drew more than 150 supporters.
Senior night also highlighted another component of the partnership – that students and their families get to spend time on a college campus. At Arrupe Jesuit, where more than 90 percent of students will be the first in their families to attend college, that experience is significant.
“Our first goal is to serve the community,” said Anthony Grant, Ph.D., athletic director at MSU Denver, of the partnership. “But a close second is that we wanted to combine athletics with a campus experience, so that the students could learn more about who we are and what we do at this university.”
Grant noted that Arrupe Jesuit already requires all of its students to apply to MSU Denver, but he’d like to see a rise in the number of students who enroll. That goal aligns with one of the University’s strategic priorities – investing in Latino students. More than 90 percent of Arrupe Jesuit students come from Latino families.
The strategy appears to be working.
“I think the fields say a lot about the school,” said Leslie Quintero, a junior and captain of the girl’s soccer team. “The fact that they took the time and spent the money to build them shows how much they care about their students.”
When it opened in 2015, the complex was hailed a “field of dreams” by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. For its environmental and community impact, the facility claimed a Downtown Denver Award in 2016.
The partnership was initiated by Bill Hanzlik, a former Nugget’s player and current MSU Denver board member. On a tour of Arrupe Jesuit, Hanzlik ran into boy’s soccer coach Andrew Syed.
“I asked if there was anything I could do to help the program, and he said, ‘we really need a field,’” Hanzlik recalled. “And I remember thinking, MSU Denver might be able to help with that. It seemed like a natural fit for a partnership.”
Hanzlik called MSU Denver’s Jim Gillen, the associate athletic director for facilities and community engagement, thinking that maybe MSU Denver could host one game. He never imagined a whole season would be possible, given the complexities of scheduling and high-demand for the facility.
It turns out the partnership will extend beyond even the fall season. The girl’s soccer team will play at the RAC this coming spring, and all parties involved seem hopeful of the partnership’s long-term sustainability.
“In the Jesuit tradition, we talk a lot about educating the whole person: mind, spirit and body,” said Pimmel. “This partnership enables us to do an even better job at that. It not only helps our student-athletes become better soccer players, but also helps us create community within the team and pride for our school. We are so grateful for this opportunity.”