With his 6-foot-2-inch frame and follicular flair, Timbers defender Nat Borchers is a force both on and off the pitch. But it wasn’t only his soccer skills that earned him the admiration of the King Cubs college-prep soccer club.

The team, coached by Educational Advocate Eddie Esparza, had long looked to Borchers as an example of good sportsmanship. The players and Esparza wrote him letters last year to express their respect. “We have been watching the highlights of the games leading up to the final playoff game. I must say that I am very impressed with your actions as a professional athlete in a time where few are humble and few take the high road,” wrote Esparza.

On May 17, Borchers responded with a visit to King Elementary to give the team a pep talk before the annual Police Activities League youth soccer tournament. Like the Timbers, winners of the 2015 Major League Soccer Cup, the King Cubs were feeling the pressure. They too were the reigning champs. And while the stakes were high, both teams would prepare for every outcome.

“Like you guys, we’re not making any excuses,” said Borchers, referring to the school’s No Excuses University model of college preparation.

Borchers’ advice for the team echoed a message that students at King often hear in the classroom and at practice: Hard work and education count for a lot.

“I’ve learned even if you’re losing, don’t give up. You can keep pushing yourself,” said fourth-grader David Smith-Myles. “The club helped me improve my grades, be at school more and improve my soccer skills.”

The positive tone is largely attributable to Esparza. “Eddie’s got a great message with the way he coaches,” Borchers said.

Esparza’s coaching style is one that embraces second chances: “When someone makes a mistake, we say, ‘Next time.'”

After all, the King Cubs are a family. A family who does gear exchanges with items donated by the King staff, players, friends and school partners such as Active Children Portland. A family who holds a semiweekly food pantry with the school’s Family-Community Resource Center. Said Esparza, “No matter what, we will always be a team and a family. We either support each other or we fail.”

This philosophy seems to resonate with students of all ages, including the team’s four teen volunteer coaches from Fort Vancouver High School. “I like to spend time with them, and Mr. Esparza has told me to be more optimistic about life,” said junior Teo Huerta, who this spring won a chance to interview Timbers players.

King Cubs won their first two games in the big tournament on May 21 before finishing in second place. An outstanding effort by a team with its eyes set on an even bigger prize.

Said one player, “I want to be successful in school so that I can become a good person not just on the soccer field, but in life.”