GAGE PARK — The Solorio Academy High School football team takes more than just a 6-1 record into its game Friday night against Phillips.
"We're fighting for the community," quarterback Quincy Patterson said.
The football program at Eric Solorio Academy High School, 5400 South St. Louis St., is not one of the historical blueblood football programs in Chicago Public League athletics. But the Southwest Side high school, which opened in 2010, has made a name for itself.
Solorio has state-of-the art facilities, along with its own football field and stadium, something that most public schools do not have. The Gage Park high school was named after Eric Solorio, a police officer who killed in a squad car crash back in 2006.
While other football programs struggle for basic needs like equipment, players, practice space and meals before and after games, Solorio seems to have made the best of its budget. Before the season, the team received football cleats from World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, and supplements its bottom line with grants and donors.
Matt Erlenbaugh, the team's varsity football coach, said "we have an administration that is very sports-friendly — they see the importance of athletics."
"We're not saying it is the most important thing but they see the importance. The teachers are great when working with us. The school, the students, and the community have been great in supporting us," he said.
Last week's homecoming game was the program's biggest to date: Some 1,800 people came to see the team beat King College Prep and put Solorio in the state playoffs for the third consecutive year.
"We had to work hard to build everything up. We're not a well-known school," Erlenbaugh said. A lot of the kids "had to learn what it means to be a part of a team."
Solorio football has also provided a safe place for players who've experienced problems in their neighborhoods. Messiah Travis, a sophomore, transferred to Solorio from West Englewood's Harper High School after being harassed after coming to the aid of his girlfriend when she was assaulted by a gang member.
"They threatened to shoot me over it. My mother heard about Solorio, so she got in touch with the principal," Messiah said. "Now my momma doesn't have to worry about me getting shot, getting threatened, or people asking me if I gangbang or not. I feel safe here. It's quiet."
Solorio could be described as a gem hidden in plain sight. In August, the school was named one of the top 20 public schools in Chicago by Chicago Magazine.
"We wanted the school to look like a college campus because we want our students to be college ready. We're one of the first schools of this type," Principal Victor Iturralde said. "I'm proud of where we are after six years. Football is expensive and we try to make sure our students are safe by having the most updated equipment."
Jeff Niemiec, the school's athletic director, said installing lights at the football field in June 2014 was a selling point to the community.
"Before we got lights on our field, football was just another sport to our student body and community. The 'Friday Night Lights' atmosphere has not only given our community and students a place to come together, but it has also allowed us to create traditions and a sense of spirit as a school," Niemiec said.
"Solorio is a relatively new school and our staff has worked hard to build a positive school culture. Our football program has played an huge role in that positive culture because it is something everyone rallies around," he said.
Adds Vanessa Carrano, whose nephew Robert Chayka is a member of Solorio's football team, "The school and the community comes out to cheer the kids on. I've seen a lot of community members and coaches putting in extra time for all of the sports.
"They get a lot of help here," she said, including parents pitching in at the concession stand "even when some of their kids have already graduated."
Carrano boys supporting their favorite Sun Warriors! #10 CHAYKA #7 PATTERSON pic.twitter.com/qsXJzlKCj6— Vanessa Carrano (@VanessaCarrano1) October 8, 2016
The athletic department handed out bookbags to students from surrounding elementary schools.
To start the year, our student-athletes gave 200+ bookbags filled w/ supplies to neighboring K-5 schools. pic.twitter.com/dkc3jCmY1V— Eric Solorio Academy (@SolorioHS) September 14, 2016
Patterson, the quarterback, who said he has received scholarship offers from Syracuse, Penn State, and Northwestern among others, said the support from the school and the community gives him motivation when he steps onto the field.
"It's a good feeling because I have more of purpose than just to win," Patterson said, describing how he thinks the team reflects the hopes of the area.
"Having our classmates cheer us on makes us fight even more."
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