- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) - Head coach Javier Saavedra has inspired the boys of the Guilford soccer team to work harder because of what he’s been through, and how he’s handled himself throughout.

“It’s hard not to give that little extra that you might have inside when he’s out there watching you,” Guilford’s senior midfielder Rogelio Arreguin said. “He makes us all say to ourselves: ‘Don’t ever give up.’”

And according to Saavedra, limited to a wheelchair since he was struck by a stray bullet in 1997, the Vikings’ players are inspiring him to live his life to the fullest at the same time.

“Oh, it most definitely goes both ways,” Saavedra said. “I hope that I’m helping educate them in a lot of ways, not just on the sport of soccer. And they are most definitely motivating me to be a better person myself. It’s a challenge, but it’s so much fun, and it’s just so rewarding.”

Saavedra was caught in the cross-fire during a drive-by shooting while sitting at a restaurant in Guatemala during his final year of college in that country. He was paralyzed from the waist down and has been in a wheelchair ever since.

But he did not let it drag him down emotionally, and he refused to let it take away the sport he loves the most. The former Dixon soccer star moved back to the area after his initial recovery, and that’s when he started working his way back into the game.

“My former coach at Dixon invited me to practice one day, and he told me I was an inspiration to them all, and he wanted me back,” Saavedra said. “That’s pretty much how it started. That was when I realized, ‘Hey, I can do something with this, and continue to be involved in what I love: soccer’.”

He was an assistant for the Dukes in 2001, was later an assistant at Rockford Lutheran and then at Guilford the past three seasons, and he helps out with the coaching duties for the North Boone girls team as well.

While he admits his wheelchair - which is not customized for coaching, but is made of a titanium alloy and has specially-treaded tires for the grass - makes things like demonstrating a kick or a move challenging, he also insists the use of a dry-erase board, as well as the help of his assistants and his captains, “does the trick just as well. Oh, they’re learning a lot, they don’t care if I’m in a chair or not.”

And in this, his first year as the head coach of the Vikings, he has his team on an upswing. After winning three conference titles and claiming six straight regional championships from 2002-07, Guilford struggled to stay on top for a stretch.

But this year’s squad was 9-4 headed into Tuesday night’s match with Belvidere North, and while they were just 2-2 in NIC-10 play, they did push undefeated Boylan to the brink last week, eventually falling 1-0 in overtime. The Vikings then went out and posted a 2-1 record in the highly contested Indian State Cup Tournament last weekend.

“We’re coming around,” said Saavedra, who is a certified medical and legal interpreter, as well as a coach. “We’ve had some ups and downs, but we all believe we are one of those teams that can be around and in contention at the end.”

Saavedra insists his team is still in the rebuilding stages, and it being his first season as a head coach, he’s trying not to raise expectations too high. But, he also can’t help but throw praise in the direction of his team as it continues to grow.

That goes both ways.

“He’s the kind of guy that just always motivates you - he’s always doing and saying things that make you want to give it your all,” senior center Adnan Avdic said. “He gets the best out of us, that’s for sure. This year, it just feels different with Coach (Saavedra) out there with us. He pushes us, and we’re all pushing each other.”

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Source: Rockford Register Star, http://bit.ly/Y6BdgK

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Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com

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