Heart of the City celebrates college-bound players

Heart of the City
Updated 8/23/2017 9:53 AM
  • NCU alumni Lizette Popoca, Kristy Ochoa, Stephanie Martinez, and Sangjun Hornewer pose for a picture together at Heart of the City's recent ribbon cutting and open house in downtown Waukegan. Adrienne Wright

    NCU alumni Lizette Popoca, Kristy Ochoa, Stephanie Martinez, and Sangjun Hornewer pose for a picture together at Heart of the City's recent ribbon cutting and open house in downtown Waukegan. Adrienne Wright

Sal Gloria believes his job is about more than creating better soccer players. The Director of Soccer Operations for Heart of the City also places a significant emphasis on preparing young people academically.

The outcome of this organization philosophy is well-demonstrated by several of its North Central United select travel program alumni.

Lisette Popoca and Christi Ochoa have both recently signed to attend school and play college-level soccer at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, MO. Stephanie Martinez will be starting at Dominion University in River Forest, IL as well.

"Our players grow through moments of success and failure," Gloria said, smiling. "NCU is so happy to be a part of this particular achievement!"

Although two of the girls are still undecided about their course of study, Martinez hopes to study and pursue a career in engineering. In a district where only 59 percent of freshman are on track to graduate, the success of these young women is something the organization wants to highlight.

All the young ladies are recent Waukegan High School graduates and have played under Gloria's leadership for several years.

Playing forward, Popoca was among the lead scorers for NCU's Girls Elite team this past year. "She is a threat on the field," said Gloria as he reminisced about her gameplay. "She applies pressure and attacks from the moment she hits the pitch."

At center back, Ochoa is equally powerful. "She's a physical and technical defender," Gloria boasts. Every time she's on the field, she is physically strong and good in the air."

"As a holding midfielder, Martinez has very specialized skills," shared Gloria. "She is a very technical player with a lot of vision.

Gloria originally started the travel soccer program as an independent venture, but later merged with the nonprofit Heart of the City in to help increase access to organized sports in Lake County.

Sangjun Hornewer, a NCU alumna herself, is another of the program's recent success stories. Today she attends Lake Forest College, where she is majoring in Communication. She is also being actively scouted by the national soccer team of Thailand.

Hornewer, who played for Gloria since NCU's inception, spoke passionately about those early days at a recent event at Heart of the City, where the college-bound players were sharing their stories with local community leaders.

"Coach Gloria was so dedicated in his efforts to build this successful program. The time he spent working with us, making sure we had what we needed to succeed was just amazing."

On behalf of Heart of the City, Chief Operating Officer Brandon Massey commended the young ladies for their perseverance: "I would like to formally congratulate these outstanding young ladies. We look forward to staying in touch in the coming years as they reach their goals on and off the field."

Heart of the City's mission is to change the trajectory of young people's lives through soccer.

Because of the sport's popularity, the organization views soccer as a powerful pathway to youth development. Along with teaching children important athletic skills related to control, mobility, balance, and agility, the mentorship relationship between a coach and his players is an opportunity to instill life lessons that can lead to success in school and future careers.

"I am excited, but I am going to miss everything about playing with North Central United," stated Popoca. "It is about so much more than soccer. When you travel together to these competitions you grow close. There is real bonding that happens between the team members."

When asked what they would like to tell next season's team members about the experience of playing for the organization and where it could lead, the three young women were unified in their response.

"I never thought I would graduate," confided Ochoa. "I really didn't. Now I'm going to college to play soccer. If I can do it, they can do it."

Heart of the City staff plan to send care packages to all the organization's alumni attending college later this fall.

"Attending school away from home is a big change for our players," said Massey. "We want them to know we're still here to support them."

About the Heart of the City

Since 2014, Heart of the City has provided an opportunities youth in the Lake County area to participate in recreational and competitive soccer activities. We believe that all youth should have access to high-quality sports programs and to academic learning opportunities, and as a result we endeavor to teach our players to be competitive on the field, successful in their school, and productive in their community. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, we rely on the community for support to achieve these outcomes. For more information, visit Heartofthecitysports.org.

About Harris-Stowe University

Located in midtown St. Louis, Harris-Stowe is a public university offering programs designed to give students a competitive edge in an ever-expanding global market. Its campus boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1, and over thirty countries are represented in their student population. Seven women from last year's Hornets soccer team were recognized for academic all-conference.

About Dominican University

Dominican University is an intellectually integrated, mission-centered education environment offering unparalleled opportunities to students, including 50+ undergraduate degree options. Located in River Forest, Illinois, the 939,000 square feet of buildings along the thirty-acre campus houses 4 residence halls, 2 theaters, and a central library all within ten minutes of downtown Chicago.

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