Jason Soto is looking to educate Tooele area pre-teens about the need for good exercise, sportsmanship, team building and lifelong health. But before he can fulfill his job to the utmost, he will also need a soccer field.
Soto, 34, of Tooele, is the new athletic director at Excelsior Academy in Erda and with the new fall sports program, he is scouting for an outdoor venue on which his soccer team can play.
Excelsior Academy is a free charter school in Erda that recently expanded its upper grades to make a middle school, with grades 6, 7 and 8.
Soto is a lifelong sports lover who considers his new job a dream come true.
“It has always been my dream to get a sports program going at Excelsior,” he said. “People, especially the kids, have wanted more variety in the things we offer, and they are excited for activities they can tryout for, and also come and support.”
Soto has been athletic for most of his life.
He played just about every sport available when he was in high school, but did not play sports in college. Among these, volleyball is his favorite.
Born in Spokane, Washington, he joined the Army Reserve in 2004. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005. Then, he returned to Utah with the 420th M.P. unit until he came out of the Army in 2012.
He attended the University of Utah, where he worked on a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science, and a minor in health education.
“I always wanted to be a physical education teacher,” he said. “I always wanted to just help the kids like P.E. I have heard lots of stories of people not liking P.E. because their teacher was rough, and they had to do things they were not interested in.”
Soto started teaching at Excelsior when it opened in 2009.
The first year he was an assistant for the P.E. teacher.
“After the second year of doing that, I left to go to school full-time,” he said. “After I got my bachelor’s, I knew Excelsior was looking for a P.E. teacher and I knew I [would] always come back.”
It was the perfect fit.
When he was first hired, he worked with both elementary and middle school students. Then the principal suggested he work just with middle school students. That’s where he has been ever since.
Excelsior recently expanded, doubling the number of students. And, with the increase of size to 1,215 total students, the school has hired yet another P.E. teacher, Soto said. This year, Soto will be in the middle school teaching P.E. classes as well as managing the middle school’s athletics.
What sets his program apart? Soto said he wants P.E. classes to be interesting.
“We teach the traditional sports and then I also try to find other sports that focus on different strengths, for example that may not require such fast running, or great throwing,” he said. “I want to broaden the knowledge of the students and teach them teamwork and a few different activities.”
Soto said getting students involved in attending activities brings lifelong physical involvement.
“Not everyone goes out and lifts weights, not unless you are learning that in a sport,” he said. “I want to be teaching them now how to do certain things that can help them be physically active. If sports are not your thing, then we can learn real life activities.”
Soto admits that he wanted to be a head coach at a junior high. But when this opportunity came up, he jumped on it.
“Starting a sports program is something that I have been wanting to do for a long time,” he said. “When we first started looking into such a program at Excelsior, no one knew anything. We had no connections and we had a ton of questions about how to get a sports program started.”
The plan for the school is to start this fall with students involved in girls volleyball, boys soccer and cross country.
Since Excelsior has a new middle school building with a new gym space, Soto is excited for how involved in sports the students can become.
“We now have a big enough space to have bleachers for spectators to watch and the ability to play without spectators being in the way,” he said. “So that is something that is going to be new and I am excited for — to have spectators come and watch.”
The school will join the Utah Charter and Small School Athletic League for its involvement with boys soccer and girls volleyball.
Both teams will practice in the area, but travel to Salt Lake for games. Home games will be played in the new gym.
But Excelsior still needs a soccer field for its outdoor fall games.
In addition to soccer in the fall, the school will offer cross-country, as it has along with the other middle schools in the area for the past several years.
Soto said Excelsior competes with Grantsville, Clark Junior High and St. Marguerite’s in cross-country. He said other schools may also get involved in this co-ed sport.
“So right now, just like everything, I am trying to get coaches lined up to coach these sports,” Soto said. “We are having our growing pains, but we are doubling in enrollment and that is expected.”
He said transporting the team may be more work for the parents of athletes this year, but he thinks it will be worth it.
“We will travel to different schools or sites to run or play, but the Utah Association is a competitive league. They keep scores and rankings,” Soto said.
He will be involved with the state sports association and fulfilling his duties as athletic director, making sure the coaches are able to do their jobs and have the things they need. He will also focus on communication between the school and the league.
In addition to the fall sports, Excelsior will offer winter sports this school year. Boys basketball will be before winter break and girls basketball will be after winter break.
“All that will be in our fancy new gym,” Soto said.
In the spring, the schedule includes boys volleyball and girls’ soccer, ultimate frisbee and track.
“In ultimate frisbee, we will be doing that with the league, against those schools,” he said. “Track will stay with the local middle schools, just 7th and 8th grades.”
Other than track, the other sports will include 6th, as well as 7th and 8th grade students.
For Soto, the icing on the cake for Excelsior sports would be to expand each sport so there could be two teams.
“We are not limited to just one team,” he said. “It would be nice to have two different teams that could compete in soccer, for example. It will just give more students the opportunity to compete. So hopefully that will be down the road.”
He added that soccer, basketball and frisbee will all require tryouts, but the cross-country and track teams will be open to all students.
“One thing that is important is that I expect all our athletes to be students first — they have to keep up their grades and classroom behavior,” Soto said. “… They are students first and athletes second.”
Soto is busy setting his expectations for Exelsior Academy’s new sports program and outlining what sports the school will offer. While a soccer field on school grounds could be a future possibility, Excelsior’s soccer team will need somewhere to play this year. With help from the community, Soto is hopeful that someone will present the team with a temporary home until something more permanent can replace that field.
After all, Erda is known for its acreage.