By Stayson Isobe, NAU Media Relations
(From left to right): Diane Buzzard, Maya Huffman, Demi Schmieder
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – There's little doubt that soccer runs deep within the roots of the Flagstaff community. From the youth programs in town to the Northern Arizona women's soccer program, there is a strong connection that fuels soccer in the community.
One just has to set foot into Lumberjack Stadium for a NAU home game and see the Flagstaff Soccer Club ball girls roaming the track and the local representation on the NAU roster for evidence.
Between the Flagstaff Soccer Club and its Micro Soccer program as well as the national AYSO organization in town, there are over 1,000 youth soccer players locally from the ages of 4-18. Currently, the Lumberjacks have three Flagstaff natives on their roster – sophomore Diane Buzzard and freshmen Maya Huffman and Demi Schmieder – each of whom once chased down balls at NAU soccer games as members of the Flagstaff Soccer Club.
For head coach Andre Luciano, the connection starts there.
"There's a huge connection between NAU soccer and the local soccer community," Luciano said. "It's great to see some kids that used to be ball girls now wearing our jersey 12 years later. Our goal is to create a product on and off the field where these kids look at our players as role models, so that they grow up and want to be a Lumberjack."
However, the local soccer connection between NAU and the community dates back to the inception of the program in 1997 with 11 local high school products – three from Coconino High and eight from Flagstaff High – donning the Lumberjack uniform in school history. Although Schmieder is the first player from Coconino since 2004, the FHS pipeline has been steady with six former Flagstaff High graduates making their way to NAU since 2006, including both Buzzard and Huffman.
"I feel that Flagstaff is continuing to develop very good soccer players from the local high schools and the club," Luciano said. "It's been great for us because we've been able to see them play and develop over the years. We've watched some of these kids since they were 13 years old and some since they were eight. With Diane, Maya and Demi, we talk about having NAU True Blue bleeding through your veins and these three absolutely have that."
For all three of the current local Lumberjacks, each of their parents all attended NAU at one point or another. From athletes (Schmieder's father was a wrestler and Buzzard's brother played football for NAU) to current employees (Buzzard's mother and Huffman's father both work for the university), Lumberjack pride runs through each of their families.
"Growing up, I always came to NAU soccer games and I worshiped the girls on the field," Buzzard said. "I wanted to be one of them. Having the opportunity to stay here has been great. You can say NAU is deep in my family roots, so it's good to be a Lumberjack."
Yet what makes soccer in Flagstaff truly special is the relationships beyond the playing field. There have been several former Lumberjacks that have made the transition from playing on the field to the coaching ranks with the local club. Some have even coached at the high school level in town with former players Krista Earp and Lisa Van Gorder coaching at Sinagua High and Flagstaff High, respectively.
The current NAU staff also has spent time coaching the club's youth teams. Luciano spent five years coaching the club on the side before taking this year off to focus on his NAU squad, but assistant coaches Holly Jones and Brandon Porter continue to be involved with the club. But any conversation about soccer in the Flagstaff community must center around Jones.
Jones, who ended her NAU playing career in 2001, was the head girls' soccer coach at Flagstaff High for six years where she led the team to two state championships. She has also been involved with the Flagstaff Soccer Club since 2001, where she currently serves as the Director of Coaching.
Part of her duties include organizing three youth soccer tournaments that bring about 280 teams to Flagstaff yearly, in addition to running skill sessions every Monday night for all of the club players. Jones also organizes youth clinics including this Sunday's free clinic for the Micro Soccer kids following the conclusion of the Lumberjacks' match with Sacramento State.
"It's huge to have a Division I program here in Flagstaff that gives the youth players higher level games to watch and role models to look up to," Jones said. "It all starts when they're younger and they can get that connection with our players being the role models for them."
Whether it's Luciano and his staff members getting involved with the club or his Lumberjack team supporting the local youth teams at their games, as far as Luciano is concerned, it's all about establishing a relationship between his program and the community. This relationship with the community has played a large part in propelling the Lumberjacks into the top-20 nationally in average home attendance.
"It's important that the community supports the program," Luciano said. "That's one of the reasons why we have such great attendance. The community is so involved in everything that we do from the ball girls to our girls being mentors to the local kids. It's important for us to give back as a team and our goal is to be great role models for the young kids in the community."
This season, NAU has averaged 1,006 fans per game through its first five home matches, ranking them at No. 20 in the nation heading into this weekend's crucial Big Sky games. In fact, two of the five games this season rank as two of the top-10 home attendances in school history, including a school-record 2,207 fans for the home opener against Arizona State on Aug. 24.
"I'm so glad that we've had so much support this year because it helps so much," Buzzard said. "I've been in the stands as a fan and now being on the field, I know how much the fans can lift us up. Knowing that people here in Flagstaff are supporting us is huge. The ASU game was unreal. We had people along the track, the stands were filled; I've never played in a game with that many people."
In the end though, Luciano says it comes down to Flagstaff and NAU being "one community, one family" and soccer in this town is just one example of this partnership. After all look no further than stories such as Schmieder's, who remembers cheering for former Lumberjack great Cee Cee Odorfer with her club team in the Lumberjack Stadium stands during her seven-year stint with the club.
"I wanted to represent Flagstaff because I love the town and everything about it," Schmieder said. "To have the opportunity to play for a great school where I was a part of the fans growing up here and to be able to wear blue and gold every time I come out here is a dream come true. I love every second of it and it couldn't be a better situation."
While not every youth player in town may play at the collegiate level, as Buzzard, Huffman and Schmieder all exemplify, the Flagstaff soccer community and Northern Arizona University will always be intertwined due to the work of many.
"I never imagined I'd actually be out on the field playing for NAU," Huffman, a member of the soccer club for six years, said. "I look back to when I was a ball girl and those NAU soccer players seemed like all-stars. I would just tell all of the kids that if soccer is something you love, just stay with it. It's a lot of work but it's really worth it."