New name means charter school soccer team can play in postseason – Chicago Tribune
The boys soccer team at UNO Soccer Academy, a charter high school on Chicago’s Southwest Side, tore through its schedule last year, kindling hopes of a deep run in the state playoffs. But the team’s season ended before the playoffs even began.
The reason came down to two words.
The Illinois High School Association determined that having “soccer academy” in the school’s name could unfairly attract gifted athletes — an enticement that, even if unintentional, would violate rules against recruiting.
So with a new season underway, UNO Soccer Academy is no more. It has changed its name to Soto High School in honor of Victoria Soto, a first-grade teacher slain at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
The new name is part of a larger rebranding of the 15-school UNO Charter School Network, whose former umbrella group drew federal scrutiny for its contracting and bond-issuing practices. That group, United Neighborhood Organization, settled a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint in 2014 by allowing an outside monitor to review its contracts for conflicts of interest.
The charter school network, which split from UNO in 2013, last month began calling itself Acero Schools, after the Spanish word for steel. CEO Richard Rodriguez said the change was made in part to “dispel any confusion over former affiliations.”
The switch came more than six years after construction crews broke ground on the Gage Park campus, envisioned from the start as a different kind of school.
Juan Rangel, UNO’s former CEO, said the original idea was to create a soccer “development academy” that would set talented young players on the path for athletic scholarships or professional contracts. Dozens of soccer clubs around the country run such academies, but many charge fees low-income families can’t afford.
That plan soon morphed, Rangel said.
“We could create a school based on soccer,” he said in an interview. “If we name it a ‘soccer academy,’ we could attract kids. We weren’t going to test them to see if they were good. … The idea was not to create soccer stars, but to use soccer as a hook to engage kids in our neighborhood.”
The campus includes an elementary and a high school, along with a full-size turf soccer field. When the elementary school opened in 2011, officials said it would blend the sport into classes ranging from PE to social studies to math.
The high school opened two years later, but because it started with just a freshman class, its interscholastic sports program began slowly. Boys soccer coach Matthew Ribbens said that for the first few years, the team played only practice games against other schools.
But last year, UNO Soccer Academy got a place in the Public League, the athletic conference for Chicago Public Schools. Its boys soccer team, stocked with its first class of seniors, raced through the regular season, losing only two games on its way to a top four finish in the city tournament.
Normally, that would have set up the team for a high seed in the postseason state playoffs run by the IHSA. There was just one problem: UNO Soccer Academy was not part of the IHSA.
Executive Director Craig Anderson said the organization was hesitant to accept the school as a member because its name could amount to impermissible recruiting.
“We felt like it clearly was trying to build upon the fact that they were going to create very good soccer teams,” he said. “The fear of that, and how it would trigger (other schools) if they have soccer success with that name, created issues within the membership.”
The IHSA declined to let admit the academy, and with that, the 2016 season was over. Defender Luis Lopez said it was a bitter letdown.
“We did our best every game, and at the last minute we found out we couldn’t play in the playoffs at all,” he said. “It was disappointing for everybody, but especially the seniors, because they had never experienced anything like (the IHSA tournament). And we had an amazing team last year.”
The name change, which took place last month and was accepted by the IHSA a few weeks ago, assured that this year would be different. Soto wrapped up its regular season last week with a 10-3-1 record, and is heading into its first state tournament seeded second in its bracket.
Ribbens said he thinks the team is capable of a winning a state title, even though the tournament’s win-or-go-home pressure will be new to his squad. But senior midfielder Gerardo Gomez said the high stakes are welcome.
“I feel like this year, since we got what we wanted, we’re going to go all out,” he said. “We’re going to try to make it as far as we can.”