Boys and girls from the AYSO South Los Angeles Region 1031 are dominating on the soccer field and the program’s coaches are instilling confidence and pride in their student-athletes.
By Celia Ward-Wallace
In a sport that has become more privileged, more White and more based in a pay-for-play structure, the South Los Angeles Region 1031 of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) is changing the face of the game. They are the most diverse soccer region in the country with the largest number of Black players in the United States. This model soccer program provides affordable access to high-quality coaching and a supportive family-centered community for Black and Latino youth who in turn are dominating the competition and creating a legacy for generations to come.
After the 1992 Civil Unrest in Los Angeles, a result of the Rodney King verdict, Dave Hauptman and Cleve L. Freeman created the AYSO South L.A. Region 1031 soccer program at Harvard Recreation Center on 62nd Street and Denker Avenue in 1994. This is the same famous park where sports legends Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, and Eddie Murray all played their high school baseball games, and where Venus and Serena Williams got their start practicing on the tennis courts.
This program was originally created to provide low-income Black and Latino residents with affordable access to sports programs. In 1995, the first AYSO South L.A. teams were formed with 35 players and grew in a few short years to over 700 registered participants. Initially, there were only boys soccer teams because the community generally did not feel it was appropriate for girls to play, and families also did not have enough capacity for both their boys and girls to participate. To overcome this issue, 70 girls were recruited to play with a free scholarship and they comprised one-third of the total players.
Due to the growth of the league, a new field was necessary to meet the demands of the expansion. Hauptman and Freeman submitted a proposal to Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke for the South L.A. Region to gain access to the new $3.5 million Kenneth Hahn Sports Complex in Ladera Heights. Their proposal succeeded and they were granted exclusive access to their new field.
The last decade of growth increased participation to over 1,000 players, which was ushered in by strong leadership in the form of past commissioner Rudolph Charles and his wife Melissa.
“It’s been a positive impact in providing a different sport to our community who are not so much used to soccer,” Charles said. “Over the years it’s been of interest to parents who are looking for alternate sports for their kids.”
The growth of the program happened steadily as the success of the South L.A. Region has as well. For the 2019 fall season, there were 49 boys teams and 40 girls teams. The talent level of the players has become legendary with championships taken for years on end. The South L.A. Region has competed in the AYSO Western States Championship every year since 2012. This tournament is for the top four AYSO teams in each division across the four states of California, Arizona, Washington, and Nevada.
The Region’s overall tournament results are historic and unparalleled. Since 2012 the South L.A. Region has finished in first place seven times, second place four times, and third place three times, across all age divisions. In all tournaments played since 2003, the South L.A. Region has won 164 first place medals, and 72 second place medals. The South L.A. Region has become the most dominant, skilled, and competitive AYSO region in the state and the team to beat at every tournament.
The South L.A. girls soccer program is the crown jewel of the region. It’s grown from the first 70 girls who played for free in 1995, to now 40 teams, several of which are considered the best in the country. In 2016 the Girls “Under 12” team had a historic undefeated season with 56 wins, 2 ties, and no losses. In 2019, the Girls “Under 10,” “Under 12,” and “Under 14,” teams all played in the Western States Championship game with two of the three winning the final. With these wins, each team became the top 15 players in the four Western States out of over 250,000 players competing. Several of the past year's championship teams have been led by Coach Habeebah Kolleff, who is an African-American female coach, who was a player herself, as well as many other talented coaches who led their teams to victory.
While the program has developed a history of winning at the highest level, they are developing these children to be more than great athletes. Performing well academically and becoming a productive member of society is also important.
“The biggest lessons that I teach my girls are resilience, commitment, and focus,” Kolleff said. “They know that they have to work hard in school first in order to be able to have the chance to play. So they have to work hard in the classroom, in practice, and in games. Soccer is a way to give these girls a set of skills that will not only help them on the soccer field but in all aspects of life.”
“Soccer provides the children with a lot of focus,” Charles said. “I’ve coached for a number of years, and all of the kids that I’ve had on my teams have done well academically. I think that sports in general, at least as my experience as a father, builds up a lot of confidence and focus in children.”
The players feel the South L.A. Region is special also. One player shared, “I love our region because everyone is a big family and supports each other. My team is great because we have fun joking around, and when we play we use teamwork.”
The South L.A. Region is not only legendary for its players but its volunteers. In 2017 it was selected as the #1 best-managed region out of 67 other regions representing over 100,000 players.
For more information about AYSO South Los Angeles Region 1031, visit www.ayso1031.org. Registration for the Fall season begins April 6, 2019.