Eleven years ago this week, the inaugural roster of the Stanislaus County Cruisers was taking form.
Still two weeks removed from its official debut, Modesto's first professional soccer team was poised to offer a new affordable entertainment option for local fans -- playing a style that players, coaches and owners alike believed would catch on and be a long-term success.
After a fast start and some success on the field, that long-term dream died. And the first symptom of the malady that eventually would be the franchise's demise came 14 games into that first season, when the ownership group asked head coach Dave DeHart to accept a demotion to co-head coach.
Instead of sharing the head duties, DeHart quit.
"It's been a long time, and right now I couldn't tell you our lineup," said DeHart, now 46 and having recently finished his ninth season as head soccer coach at Division III University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. "It was important for me to move on and to learn from mistakes. I call it failing forward. I have some ideas of why things didn't work, but it provided me with another opportunity that has worked out for me professionally and financially."
DeHart, who grew up in Modesto and graduated from Davis High, took advantage of spring break at Ozarks to visit family and friends. And while he's here, he's putting on two free clinics on the pitch at MJC West campus. Tuesday's clinic was on goaltending, while today's 4:30 p.m. demonstration is on finishing. He'll be back in July with his No Limits Soccer Academy.
DeHart's sudden and (at the time) shocking exit from the Cruisers is the only black mark on his 28-year coaching career, which began at the youth level in Modesto and quickly spread through Ajax elite teams and Modesto Junior College. He left a position as Nevada's state director of youth soccer to lead the Cruisers.
By taking the job, DeHart gave the Cruisers instant credibility in the Modesto youth soccer community, if not in the Latino soccer community. Ownership needed him to be able to relate to both.
"There was a cultural separation, and it was more than just among the Latino and white players," DeHart said. "Ajax players in Modesto were generally from affluent or upper middle-class families, because it cost a lot of money to be part of those teams. We weren't connecting with the kids who couldn't afford to be on those teams. That same division occurred on the team, and we tried to bridge that gap.
"When another coach was brought in to be able to connect better to the Latino players, it only made the separation more evident. I regret I didn't pay more attention in school and learn to speak Spanish. It would have helped me."
The team had success under Manuel Pires, reaching a regional final in 1998. But Pires resigned four games into the 1999 season. In 2001, the team went through an ownership change, then changed their name to the California Gold in 2002. By 2004, they downgraded from professional to amateur Player Development League status.
In late 2006, after two seasons of playing in front of empty stands, the franchise ceased operations.
"I don't know where Modesto soccer is right now," DeHart said. "I really don't see anybody doing anything."
Arkansas has been good to DeHart, who admits pinching himself every day for being able to earn a living as a soccer coach. But it has taken a toll. He misses California, and during a recent trip to a dermatologist he was told constant exposure to the sun has given him the skin of someone 62 years old.
DeHart said he can get used to wearing sunscreen, but the Arkansas summer humidity is more difficult to bear. And as much as he says he loves coaching at the college level, he wouldn't mind taking another shot at leading a pro or PDL club team.
"One of the nice things about being a college coach is that I'm the owner, general manager and the coach," said DeHart, who has a 121-57-11 record at Ozarks. "The Cruisers had a lot of chiefs, and when athletes see that it allows them to choose sides.
"I'd love to see another team spring up in Modesto. I'd like to take what I've learned and give it another shot. But it has to be elite. It has to be different and special, and you have to commit to building."
Since leaving the Cruisers, DeHart hasn't looked back. If he holds ill will against the initial ownership group, he's not talking about it. There's nothing to gain by beating that dead horse.
But the last laugh? Consider that while the Cruisers are a fading memory, DeHart, the soccer coach, remains standing.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.