Beyond racking up wins, Des Moines East boys soccer team also lifts up its community

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Soccer
East players celebrate a goal by Jose Balderas Hernandez during a game at Johnston. Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
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By Alyssa Hertel, Des Moines Register

Juega a pie. Hay que bajar. Un toque.

Early in a Monday night varsity soccer game between Des Moines East and Johnston, Jose Balderas Hernandez collected the ball just inside the penalty area.

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Calls of encouragement and direction rang out from the players around him: Play to feet. You have to drop. One touch.

He saw an opportunity to put the Scarlets on the scoreboard first, as Dragons’ goaltender Will Safris moved closer to the perimeter of the goal area. But Balderas Hernandez was the lone white jersey among a trio of purple shirts, and he knew he’d need to take a shot soon.

Te llega. Gira.

The East senior forward juggled the ball around Johnston defender Steven Gyuro. Man on. Turn. With another Dragons defender advancing from behind, Balderas Hernandez pivoted onto his left foot and prepared to take the shot with his dominant leg.

A puerta.

Balderas Hernandez launched the ball into the top right corner of Johnston’s goal. To the goal. As his shot – which was right on target – made contact with the net, Balderas Hernandez ran toward his teammate, arms outstretched, palms to the sky, and embraced sophomore Pierre Castro.

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Saul Rodriguez added another goal for the Scarlets at the halftime buzzer, and junior goalkeeper Kevin Perez put together a 10-save performance, which included a diving save on a penalty kick to keep a shutout intact.

Those two goals – and that massive save by Perez – were enough to push East past Johnston, the then-second-ranked team in Class 4A.

But a Des Moines Public School beating one of the suburban schools on the pitch should not come as a surprise, at least not with this East team.

Soccer is about more than wins and losses for the Scarlets. It gives the players an opportunity to uplift East athletics and represent the community they come from.

About 15% of Des Moines’ population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Comparatively, the percentage is larger at East, with 45% of the student body and 72% of the boys soccer team identifying as Hispanic or Latino, according to the school.

East’s players understand that they represent something larger than themselves, and they’ve spent the past three seasons building something special on the east side.

That hard work has paid off, with the underestimated and often overlooked Scarlets squad switching from the typical underdog into the top dog.

Unprecedented success for East boys soccer

Derek Lounsberry has been the head coach at East for 24 years.

So, it’s safe to say he knows the history of this Scarlets soccer program and understands how significant it is for these boys to put together not just one winning season but three in a row.

Soccer
Many Sanchez of East dribbles the ball during at Johnston.
Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register

The Scarlets sit in the Top 10 of Class 4A boys soccer with a record of 14-2. East went 13-7 in 2022 and 12-7 in 2021. The seniors on this squad missed their freshman season because of the pandemic. But before that, it had been 10 years since East had over 10 wins in a single season and four years since the Scarlets finished with a winning record.

Lounsberry can’t remember a time in his over-two-decade-long tenure when East was as successful as this current team.

That achievement isn’t a fluke.

“Our hardest workers are our best players,” Lounsberry said. “It really started three years ago, when these guys were freshmen. The year after COVID, they came in and they wanted to play. So, we put together a program and everybody bought in.”

On paper, all the pieces came together for East.

Balderas Hernandez has scored the second-most goals (19) in 4A and has recorded the most points (48). Manny Sanchez is one of the leaders in assists, with 14 this season. Perez has played the fourth-most minutes (1,075) among 4A goaltenders and has the second-best save percentage (87.5%) among those players, ahead of East’s 3-0 loss to Ames on Wednesday.

Rogelio Alvarado-Diaz – whom Lounsberry described as “the heart and soul” of this team – is the Scarlets’ leader on defense, and he has still managed to score three goals.

Of the 21 athletes who have appeared in a game, 16 of them have registered at least one point. It goes to show that East’s success is a product of a true team effort.

“It’s good to have those individuals on the team that show up on the leaderboard,” Alvarado-Diaz said. “But the collective goals are more important. They’re harder (to achieve) than individual statistics.

“To have good individuals on the team is always amazing, but our record, it’s just a sign that we’re doing something right.”

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Is there a secret to Des Moines East’s success on the soccer field?

Balderas Hernandez has been playing soccer since he could walk.

Alvarado-Diaz has been playing soccer since he was 3 years old.

Sanchez started to take soccer seriously when he was 9, but he played around with a soccer ball long before that.

For most, if not all, of the players on the roster, soccer has been a constant in their lives. Soccer – or football – is the most popular sport worldwide, and it’s also one of the most accessible. Anyone can play soccer if they have a ball and something that counts as a goal.

That’s why it’s possible for players like Balderas Hernandez and Alvarado-Diaz and Sanchez to have played their entire lives. Any 3-year-old can kick around a ball.

While hard work and dedication have gotten them – and Des Moines East – to this point, their experience playing the game is invaluable.

“We’ve been playing together since we were kids,” Sanchez said. “We always challenge ourselves. We always push each other. I think that’s a really big part of our success.”

That success – fostered by accountability – extends beyond the pitch.

Sanchez, who is one of East’s captains, understands that he and his teammates are students first and athletes second. The Scarlets push each other to go to class, get good grades and stay away from parties and other situations that could jeopardize the team’s achievements.

To be successful, East soccer needs buy-in from every player.

Dedication hasn’t been hard to come by, though, because the Scarlets understand that they are representing more than just themselves.

Scarlet soccer players take pride in representing Des Moines East

Several players on the team speak only Spanish.

That’s why at any given East soccer game or practice, the players will frequently switch from English commands to Spanish.

Juega a pie. Play to feet. Hay que bajar. You have to drop. Un toque. One touch. Te llega. Man on. Gira. Turn. A puerta. Literally, ‘to the door’, but in this case, on target or on goal.

“There’s no difference, in practice or in a game, it doesn’t matter,” Balderas Hernandez said. “We want everybody to be included and understand what the game plan is.”

While the entire student body at East might not be Hispanic or Latino, the Scarlet soccer players want to represent their entire community. They want to give East-siders something to cheer for.

“We remind ourselves where we’re from, who we represent,” Alvarado-Diaz said. “We’re playing for more than just ourselves. We’re playing for the people who always attend our games, our friends, our families, the east side.”

At the end of each practice, Lounsberry pulls aside a player from the huddle and says what he loves about that athlete. Some days it’s their hard work, other days it’s their perseverance. Once the coach is finished, every player in the huddle says what they like or appreciate about their teammate.

Then, Lounsberry steps aside and lets Alvarado-Diaz take over.

“Where we from?” Alvarado-Diaz yells.

“East side,” his teammates respond in unison.

“Where we from?”

“East side.”

“Where we from?”

“East side.”

Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at [email protected] or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.

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