Dear City of Visalia,
At the center of Riverway Sports Park stands five pillars which make up “Heritage Court.” The middle column reads, “Heritage Court has been established to honor the outstanding accomplishments of Visalia athletics and to recognize the community support for our youth…” The two pillars that surround that one are deemed, “Pillars Of Fame.” Each of those pillars are filled with names of Visalians, both past and present, who have indeed achieved major accomplishments in athletics, or have contributed to the community through sports.
The earliest inclusion to be listed was Orval Overall, who played baseball for Visalia High in 1900; and the latest inductee was Brooke LeeAnn Crain, who competed on the U.S. Women’s BMX team during the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between these two, there are many other athletes that played sports like: football, basketball, golf, water polo, softball, wrestling, track & field, rowing, swimming, trapshooting, and even drag racing. Despite the list of over forty people, there is not one person on there that has the sport of soccer attached to their name.
The irony of this is that Heritage Court is surrounded by ten soccer fields. Although soccer may not be the most popular sport in the United States, it does have a popular following within Visalia. Soccer leagues exist in Visalia at all levels for both boys and girls, ranging from recreational youth leagues, all the way to adult co-ed soccer leagues.
This, however, has not always been the case. Soccer in Visalia, much like the rest of the United States, has been marginalized behind sports with American origins such as football, baseball, and basketball. The Heritage Court and Pillars of Fame are furthering that marginalization by neglecting the significant contributions of so many people who have contributed to the community through soccer.
In 1967, Nahid (Ned) Al-Askari, a former teacher, started the first soccer team in Visalia at Mt. Whitney High School. Those who participated on that team in the first few years were forced to borrow old football practice jerseys for uniforms, construct their goal out of old volleyball nets, and make their corner flags out of wooden dowels with some cloth tied at the end. After Al-Askari led the team to an undefeated 1970/71 season, Redwood High School took notice and started their own soccer program. Patrick (Pat) Ferré, played for the Visalia Soccer Club and an independent adult soccer team in Visalia during the 1970s. After realizing Visalia’s lack of a proper recreational youth league, he organized public forums and established the Visalia Youth Soccer League in 1976. That league was reorganized with the help of Ferré to become Visalia’s charter of the American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO).
Other prominent individuals include Jim McDonnell, who started the girls’ soccer team at Mt. Whitney, and Greg Flenory, who did the same thing at Redwood in the 1980s. In more recent times, Jeremy Schultz has contributed to the development of Visalia’s next generation of elite soccer players. Schultz played soccer at both Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Fresno State before he pursued his dream of playing soccer professionally. After making his dream a reality, he came back to Visalia where he started coaching at the youth level. Then, in 2002, he and a group of other like-minded individuals came together and established South Valley United. Since then, Schultz has helped grow soccer throughout the San Joaquin Valley with his involvement with the Fresno Fuego, and Fresno Football Club.
All of these people have managed to give back to the people of Visalia by pioneering soccer’s establishment and growth. Without their willingness and desire to overcome the challenges of making soccer accessible to everyone, there would not be ten soccer fields surrounding Heritage Court. Furthermore, there would not be soccer fields at various parks throughout Visalia. It is for that reason that I believe there should be recognition for those who have contributed to Visalia by bringing soccer to the masses.
Tyler Caffee is an undergraduate history major at California State University, Fresno. The youngest of three siblings, Tyler aspires to become a high school history teacher. He has previously contributed as part of our Unofficial Archives series. This piece is part of Fresno State’s new public history and archive project about the history of fútbol in the San Joaquin Valley. To learn more or contribute images/stories email Prof. Romeo Guzman at firstname.lastname@example.org.