Since 1972, Academica Soccer Club in Turlock has provided the community with a place where they can learn, watch, play and appreciate the sport. Fresh off their first National Premier Soccer League title in 2021, the team is stepping into its 50th season this year with a new look and even higher expectations for the next half century.
“Not a lot of anything reaches 50 years these days, so it’s definitely a huge accomplishment. It’s great to be at the head of it at this time, especially when the club is seeing so much success and growth,” Academica President Simon Bettencourt said. “But we always like to remember where it all started and how we got to this point. We never want to forget that.”
Academica is Turlock’s sole semi-professional outdoor soccer team, and was first started five decades ago by members of the Portuguese Cultural Center at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish. The team was meant to help youth stay busy, as well as provide its founders, many of whom were immigrants, with a way to connect to their new home.
“This was an outlet for them,” Bettencourt said. “Then as it got going, it really started being about player development, success and winning games. We started scouting out the best players in the area and it went from more of a pastime and local hobby to something with a little more substance.”
They first began competitive play in the Central California Soccer League and won multiple titles in the 1980s, ‘90s and early 2000s, and also won a NorCal Adult Premier League championship in 2017. In 2018, Academica went pro and joined the National Premier Soccer League — similar to the Advanced Single-A of baseball, but for soccer. Last season, the team earned the title of the NPSL’s Golden Gate Conference champions.
The organization has also helped young players hone their skills over the years, partnering with Turlock Youth Soccer Association four years ago to form Turlock Academica Jrs.
Though some of Academica’s founding members are still on the organization’s board, fresh faces including Bettencourt, head coach Sergio Sousa, technical director Tevin Jones and general manager Michael Rocha are ushering in a new era of soccer in Turlock which has seen the team win its first title at the semi-professional level and attract both players and fans at all-time highs.
The most recent change came courtesy of a brand-new crest, which still features Academica’s signature black and gold colors, but now pays homage to the church bell tower which overlooks their home field on West Greenway Avenue.
“We were looking to make the change into something more modern that we can carry into the next 50 years,” Bettencourt said. “We don't want to stand still too long, and I think that's been our driving force.”
In the next 50 years, Bettencourt and the rest of the organization hope to become a fully professional club and serve as a destination for the area’s top players. They’re well on their way, with tryouts this month attracting close to 100 applicants from throughout the state. Players from north of Sacramento down to Bakersfield and in the Bay Area across to the foothills all wanted to play for Academica this season — nearly double the number of applications the team usually receives, Bettencourt said.
“I like to think it's because we've built something that people want to be a part of. That's all we really want to do is put together something that the top coaches want to be a part of, the top players want to be a part of that the community wants to be a part of. And I believe we're starting to see the fruits of our labor here,” Bettencourt said.
Academica has gone from 200 congregation members making their way out to games throughout the various decades to 500 people now regularly packing the bleachers for games. The final 2022 season roster will be picked as tryouts continue this month, with preseason in February and league play scheduled to begin in March.
At the heart of it all over the last 50 years has been one thing, Bettencourt said: community.
“It's just been a nice transition from a very tight-knit community thing to more of a broad reach. Now it’s people from all over the community coming to games, not just the people that were there from the beginning,” Bettencourt said. “We’ve always wanted to be as inclusive as possible and we’ve received support from everyone — high school teams, youth leagues and even parents. We’ve really captured it all around here.”
To stay up to date with Academica’s upcoming season, visit their website at www.academicasc.com or follow them on social media.