In my one year-plus of blogging about Stockton, I have been consistently and pleasantly surprised by the number of people I have met who have taken it upon themselves to stand up for the city, whether it’s creating a nonprofit, organizing a community event, or simply having a positive attitude in the face of overwhelmingly negative publicity. Such is the case with Dave Wardell and Brothers Eric and Will Martin, three Lincoln High School graduates who, despite all having lived fruitful lives away from Stockton, have refused to turn their backs on their hometown.
“I have a lot of pride about Stockton,” says Wardell, who graduated from Lincoln in 2005 and now lives in San Francisco. “People will always send me emails or articles about how crappy Stockton is doing. It gave me motivation to find a way to give back, and not just through a few hours of community service.”
It’s this shared attitude that led Wardell and the Martin Brothers to found the San Joaquin Soccer Alliance (SJSA). Back in 2010, the trio started kicking around ideas for ways to give back and stay connected to Stockton. All three played soccer in high school and went on to play in college and decided they could use the sport as an outlet for helping those back home who did not have the same opportunities they were afforded.
“There is a lot of (soccer) talent in San Joaquin, but a lot of it goes unnoticed,” says Eric Martin. “And a lot of these players don’t make it to college because they just don’t have the resources. That’s why we decided to start SJSA, not just to showcase local talent but to show (area soccer players) that they can use their talents to go to college.”
As Martin points out, the area is rich in soccer talent. However, because most colleges recruit from club teams, not high schools, many area footballers fly under the radar. Since local players cannot afford the expenses of traveling club soccer teams, many never have the opportunity to make it to the next level. That’s where Wardell and the Martin Brothers saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between Stockton’s pool of soccer talent and higher education.
“We want people to use soccer to leverage their other skills towards an education,” says Wardell.
The trio teamed up with the San Joaquin County Office of Education to create the SJSA. The support from area coaches was near unanimous, and the players were excited, too. After each season for both men and women, SJSA hosts an all-star match between seniors from the TCAL and SJAA leagues. Players are selected from each league’s all-conference team, as well as the best player from each school not represented, as determined by the school’s coach. The match is attended by college recruits including local schools such as Delta College and the University of the Pacific. In just two short years, SJSA is paying dividends both for its participants and the coaches who attend the events.
“It’s been an immense help recruiting wise,” says Delta Men’s Soccer Coach Jordan Ferrell, himself a graduate of Lincoln. “I’ve been able to get a look at players I otherwise may have not seen and recruit them. We have a few absolute studs that play for us now that we may have not known about before.”
But the event is just as much about education as it is about soccer. Before the game, SJSA lines up guest speakers to provide players with information on how to leverage their soccer ability to continue on to a two or four year program. SJSA even provides small scholarships to select participants.
“It started out mostly as a fun soccer event,” says Wardell. “But once we sent out that first scholarship check, that was the coolest moment, knowing you have made a difference in someone’s life.”
So far, the results have been positive. While many who play in the events already have colleges lined up, several had never considered going to college by way of the soccer field, and playing in SJSA’s match provided them with information on the importance of higher education. Martin estimates that about one to three players get recruited at each event that would not have been otherwise.
It should be noted that Eric and Dave do not live in Stockton; they both live in San Francisco. But despite living in the Bay and establishing their own careers, they still haven’t turned their backs on the city they grew up in. While it would be easy to turn a blind eye to Stockton’s hardships, the founders of SJSA are great examples of how much displaced Stocktonians still care about their city, even if they are away.
“For me,” says Eric Martin, “it’s about helping my hometown get as many small wins as possible.”