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A small team brings moral victory to a divided town

(Page 2 of 2)

All along, there have been tensions, compounded by the poverty and uncertain futures of small farm towns that are losing income from tobacco farms and manufacturing plants in recent years.

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The conundrums were significant enough to make Siler City a case study for last year's PBS documentary, "Matters of Race," about racial tensions between whites and Hispanics in the the region. Three years earlier, Siler City made news when white supremacist David Duke paid a visit.

During team travel, the Jets have seen those tensions first-hand and gotten used to slurs from the opposition's parents - from threats to call immigration authorities to the simple but hurtful "Stupid Mexicans."

"The thing I would always say is: Just take it out on the field, let's just beat them as badly as we can," says Cuadros. "Our motto has been strength and honor, forca y honor: Strength wins you games, but honor makes you winners."

Still, outright discrimination has been rare on the Jets' home turf, says principal David Moody: "Sure, there are struggles for everybody, but I have been here for four years, and I've never heard a statement, 'Well, I wish they'd go back to their country,' " says Mr. Moody, Indeed, he attributes the victory to the strength of a team that's overcome differences among its players.

In part, that's due to Cuadros, the son of Peruvian immigrants, who came to Siler City in 1999 to write on the emergence of Hispanic communities in the Southeast. Alone and bored, the former high school soccer captain began coaching youth leagues and lobbying the high school to establish a soccer team - an uphill fight in a town where Baptist services and football ruled the weekends.

Many of the players struggled academically and at home; Cuadros helped them with homework and refereed family battles. Several boys whose grades sank last year have worked their way back onto the squad. Cuadros hosted barbecues and team meetings at his house, where he fine-tuned sandlot skills into strategies to compete with physically stronger teams.

Today, Cuadros says, they're also helping to shape a game that, in America, is dominated by traveling clubs and players trained like classical musicians with structured time for practice and games - a contrast to the Hispanic tradition of years of backyard tricks that hone a knack for spontaneous moves.

This year, 3 out of 4 North Carolina conference champions had large numbers of Hispanic players, most of them the sons of immigrants. Cuadros hopes their success will catch college recruiters' eyes.

"This team represents something than just another soccer team," he says. "And everybody's proud of this team, whether they're white, black, or Hispanic."

Celebrating after the game, Abelardo Ramirez, a prolific midfielder with 21 goals for the season, says the win is less about acceptance than perseverance - and an affirmation that honor and hard work have their own rewards. "This is what we fought for," he says, talking about more than the medal around his neck.