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Fate of Lobo soccer has coaches, players concerned

Surely, the irony could not be lost on anyone: the sight of Robertson Field filled with scores of prep soccer players, many of them hoping to someday compete in college, and more than a few of them for the hometown University of New Mexico Lobos.
The irony of it? That Robertson Field, UNM’s practice facility, may someday soon be only a reminder of what once was in this city.
“I would love to play for UNM,” said Cleveland High’s Gabriel Legendre, a junior forward and someone who said he already has had conversations with the Lobos.
Of course, there may not be a Lobo program by the time Legendre is college ready. The decision to cut or keep UNM men’s soccer, almost certainly the most successful men’s sport at the school in the last decade, is expected to come down soon, perhaps on July 19. That’s the date when the UNM Board of Regents is expected to eliminate at least one sport as a measure to cut costs in athletics.
“It really does bother me,” Legendre said. “They work so much throughout the community. Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be a Lobo.”
A sizable chunk of the metro area’s prep soccer community congregated in and around Robertson Field — and the UNM football indoor facility — for the Lobos’ annual High School Summer Series event that began Tuesday afternoon.
Among the 12 boys teams in attendance were a veritable who’s who of the area’s elite, including defending Class 6A state champion Albuquerque High, runner-up La Cueva, plus Cleveland, Rio Rancho, St. Pius, Sandia, Atrisco Heritage and Eldorado.
One of the topics of the day was how local coaches and players are reacting to the uncertainty — and perhaps even the demise — of men’s soccer at the only university in New Mexico that offers Division I soccer.
That includes two recent prep standouts who are soon to begin their UNM careers.
“If it were to get cut, that would be devastating to all the kids who want to play here,” said former Albuquerque High forward Carlos Gutierrez, who led the Bulldogs to the state title last fall over La Cueva.
Anthony Muñoz, La Cueva’s outstanding goalkeeper last season, also is now a Lobo — fulfilling a dream he’s long held.
“It would leave a huge (vacancy) for kids to play in front of their family and friends,” Muñoz said. “That was one of the big reasons I came here.”
Another Cleveland standout, senior defender Jake Lent-Koop, recently committed to Messiah (Pa.) College, the Division III national champion.
UNM was among the schools he said he was looking at. Asked if the Lobos’ situation contributed to his decision to go elsewhere, Lent-Koop said, “part of it.”
UNM men’s coach Jeremy Fishbein, who is working this week’s series of games with his staff and players, said he has to be up front with potential recruits about his program’s uneasy circumstances.
“There are a lot of good players (in New Mexico),” Fishbein said. “My question is, how can we strengthen and challenge the elite players?”
The Lobos last season picked up a huge haul of metro-area talent, including Muñoz, Gutierrez, Albuquerque Academy’s Nick Williams, Volcano Vista’s Larsen Rogers and St. Pius’ Julian Garcia. They may all need to find new homes should the worst-case scenario unfold.
“I think it’s tragic,” longtime AHS boys coach Lucien Starzynski said. “I think the game is so improved in this state, for a number of reasons … cultivating this game is a critical part of this state. How you can have such an important piece of this state taken away is crazy to me. It is the flagship soccer program for the entire state.”
And, St. Pius coach A.J. Herrera said, the ripple effects will be felt beyond just this batch of high school athletes.
“We’re talking about kids that are 5 or 6 years old right now,” he said. “It would be absolutely devastating if this program got cut. I’m crossing my fingers that it doesn’t come to fruition.”
Several of the top metro coaches in the city — Volcano Vista’s Billy Thiebaut, Atrisco Heritage’s Micah Newman and La Cueva’s Easy Jimenez — are former Lobo players.
“This is New Mexico, a program that is a premier program,” said Thiebaut. “To just yank it after all the success, it is just mind blowing.”
Both Thiebaut and Jimenez played for coach Klaus Weber at UNM.
“There is a lot of pride playing here,” said Jimenez. “Albuquerque is more soccer than anything, with club soccer, high school soccer and college here. It’s the biggest. So to go like that — that! … it’s not like we’ve been struggling.”
But would the elimination of men’s soccer have a trickle-down, negative impact on high school-age players?
“Absolutely,” Thiebaut answered. “It will impact our clubs and high school soccer in New Mexico in general. (Kids) want to be a Lobo one day. Everyone is in distress.”
That includes St. Pius’ Jaren Rodriguez, a senior forward for the Sartans.
“It’s kind of sad,” he said. “There are so many young soccer players in New Mexico. It’s hard to get recruited out of state.”
Said Cleveland’s Lent-Koop: “To even consider taking away such a winning program is not logical to me.”

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