ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
They’re passionate about a sport that, both locally and nationally, flies just below the radar of public acclaim.
And, considering the lack of local programs to support their passion, they may well invest more time and energy in their sport of choice than any other athletes in Hillsboro.
Meet the local soccer team.
They don’t have a name, a sponsor, and for much of the year they don’t even have nets on their practice goals, but they take pride in their play nonetheless.
“We call ourselves ‘the Hillsboro team,’ so I guess it’d be nice if people knew about us and recognize us because we do represent the community in a way,” says David Unger, who is the unofficial organizer.
He and his three younger brothers are the heart and soul of an 11-member team that has competed each of the past two winters in a Wichita indoor league in Wichita, and each of the past two summers in a McPherson outdoor league.
This summer the team is 4-2 in McPherson against teams made up of high school, college and post-college players.
Unger says they should have won the two games they lost. In both games, inadequate officiating cost them goals that would have tipped the final score their way.
Such is the risk of playing in a low-budget recreation league.
“If we got the chance to play them again, everyone on our team is pretty confident we could get them,” Unger says.
In addition to the four Unger boys-David, 23, Michael, 20, Andy, 17, and Matthew, 16-the team is composed of high school and college-age players from Hillsboro.
Adam Driggers, Scott Isaac and Eric Railsback are still in high school, along with Andy and Matthew Unger. Railsback, the youngest player on the team, would have been a sophomore this fall at Hillsboro High School, but recently moved to Oregon.
The other members-Herb Wiebe, Jamie Nikischin, Justin Anderson and Lucas King-are all current or recently graduated Tabor College athletes who live in town. David and Michael Unger are also members of the Tabor men’s team.
Though several of the Tabor players have more playing experience-two grew up playing the sport in Canada-the Unger brothers are the team’s cohesive core.
Their family soccer history goes back to 1994, when the United States hosted the World Cup games. Like many other sports fans across the country, the excitement surrounding the international competition planted a serious soccer seed in their souls.
“We saw it on TV and thought it was pretty interesting,” David says. “I can’t say exactly what it was that sparked our interest, but that fall I went out for Tabor soccer.”
He was 17 then, a freshman at Tabor, and had had no previous soccer experience.
By season’s end he was hooked on the sport-along with his brothers. They “just played around” for a few years. Then, when brother Michael went out for the Tabor team a couple of years later, the interest level intensified.
They started playing intrasquad games on the Tabor fields or at the Sports Complex on Sunday afternoon, and invited friends and Tabor teammates to join them.
“We played each other, whoever we could round up,” he said. “Eventually, you found out who was really interested and who was just there to hang out.”
Once the core group formed, including three foreign exchange students at HHS, they decided to take on outside competition and joined the indoor league in Wichita for the 1998-99 winter season.
The team has had success outdoors, but Unger admits the team has struggled indoors through their two seasons of competition.
“I’m not sure what it is about the indoor league, but we just haven’t been able to get the hang of it yet,” David says. “I’m not sure how to explain the difference (between the indoor and outdoor game). If I could, maybe we’d fare better in the indoor league.”
Whatever success they might lack on the field, it’s not for lack of effort. Their commitment to develop their skills exceeds ranks right up there among the most committed athletes in Hillsboro, even though a lot of their effort escapes the attention of the public.
Their informal Sunday afternoon games, which last around an hour and half, have gone almost uninterrupted for three years-regardless of the weather or season.
Beyond that, the Unger boys do a lot of running to stay in shape for competition.
“We’re getting more into that now because my brothers are in cross country in high school,” he says. “That, of course, helps their soccer because it’s a high-endurance sport as well.”
And then there’s that “whenever” practice that goes on between the cracks.
“During the day we have a soccer ball in the house, and we just kick it around,” Unger says. “If you can have a ball under your feet all the time, you can get the feel of it and it grows on you. I’d consider that practice, in a way.
“In the evening, we just juggle around,” he adds. “Whoever comes over, we just kick the ball around the yard. We play with the ball all day.”
Unger said their peers have come to accept their commitment to soccer-more so then their fetish for skateboarding a few years earlier.
“There’s not been any real discrimination,” Unger says. “So many kids from the high school who have played basketball or football have come out and played with us from time to time. It’s a welcomed change for them, too, to do something a little different.”
Unger and his brothers would like to see Hillsboro schools start a soccer program, though they’ve been told it won’t happen anytime soon.
The brief soccer camp sponsored each spring by Tabor and city for young children won’t be enough to build the sport locally, he says.
“If there’s nothing more for kids who are out of elementary school, they quickly forget,” Unger says. “You have to build players, which is what they do in other countries.”
Unger says though national interest in the sport has risen since the men’s 1994 World Cup and the gold-medal performance by the U.S. women’s team in last year’s World Cup, soccer remains on the fringe of public interest.
“In America, there’s so many other sports to choose from. Soccer’s kind of a newcomer and it’s put on the back burner,” he says. “Since ’94, I know there’s been a huge explosion in the number of people playing.”
Someday, the Ungers hope, that explosion will consume Hillsboro, too.
“There is more of a concentration in town on other sports,” David says. “Soccer is kind of forgotten.”