MATTAWA -- Arthur deVictoria stood on the Wahluke High School soccer field after a recent practice, scanning the Saddle Mountains to the north and admiring a billowing cloud front.
"That's one of the reasons we moved here," deVictoria said of he and his wife, Cynthia, who arrived in Mattawa 18 years ago.
As deVictoria found out, the stunning landscape is only part of what makes this small town off the banks of the Columbia River special.
Soccer was, and still is, king among the largely-Hispanic population. And if one state championship can unite an entire community, imagine what five of them in 12 years will do.
"Soccer is like a religion here. There's nothing else to do," said Cele Lopez, who played for Wahluke's first-ever state championship team in 2000 and now coaches for Wahluke Junior High. "I've won seven (championships) in our town league. That's special, but nothing compares to winning a state title."
When the Warriors arrived back in town by bus after winning the 2011 championship, the town held a parade to celebrate the returning champions.
"Mostly in this town we're known for soccer. This is the only sport that brings championships to the school," said Warriors all-state goalkeeper Cesar Tlatelpa. "You carry that wherever you go, knowing how good you are."
When deVictoria first arrived in Mattawa 18 years ago, he hadn't planned on coaching soccer. A graduate of St. Francis High School in Mountain View, Calif., and Bethany University in Scotts Valley, Calif. -- both Christian schools -- deVictoria studied theology and became a licensed minister.
"I moved up here to work with a church. I decided this was where my wife and I wanted to raise our kids," he said. "I found a job at the school, and this is where I stayed."
He began as an assistant coach at Wahluke in 1993 and worked under Tony Langdon, who led the Warriors to three 2A state championships in 2000, 2004 and 2005. When Langdon took over as an administrator at Wahluke, deVictoria became head coach in 2007. Since then, he and assistant coach Shawn Beeman have continued to build the program on the same principles of hard work, selflessness and dedication.
By starting up the Mattawa Youth Soccer Program, they've also helped build up a framework where young players can learn the game with a minimal demand of money or travel time. Local businesses chip in with sponsorships, which defray the cost of equipment, uniforms and officiating crews.
While elite-level players within the Tri-Cities have little trouble joining local club programs, that option isn't as accessible to players from Mattawa, which is over 60 miles away.
"Some of our kids have been invited to play with clubs. They were told, 'You've got a scholarship. All you have to do is get here,' " deVictoria said. "Well, how are they supposed to get there?"
Plus, the cost of joining a club team well exceeds the financial means of many families in Mattawa, where nearly a third of the city's households live below the poverty line. As a result, most of Wahluke's players are expected to help their families by working in the fields.
Jorge Lopez, a senior midfielder, says he will work as many as five days a week, and up to eight hours a day in the fields. When he gets paid, he turns his paycheck over to his family.
"It's hard, but we have to help out," Jorge said.
One option Wahluke players do have is to play in the Mattawa recreational soccer leagues, which run for six months from early spring to late summer. Most of the Wahluke players play in the league, sometimes with only a day's rest following a high school game.
"We don't have access to club programs, so that is our select program," deVictoria said.
There is no minimum or maximum age to play in the league, which creates some interesting matchups for the younger players. A few over-zealous adult players have even gone as far as to try to injure the younger players in the league.
"We had a kid last year get his leg broken two weeks before the (high school) season. An older guy ran in from behind on a breakaway and took him out," deVictoria said. "Those are usually the guys from out of town. They don't care about these kids."
Fortunately, there are enough older players who live in the community and are protective of the Wahluke players.
"Some players will throw you and push you more than others, but players like Cele protect us," Jorge Lopez said.
Luis Rivera, the Warriors' all-state central defender, doesn't necessarily need protection from the older players. The sturdily built senior can dish it out as well as take it when it comes to aggressive play.
"I just respond. It's just a game. It's not personal," Rivera said.
The Warriors, however, recently dealt with an incident that left them wondering about their safety off the field as well as on.
On Saturday, March 24, a nonleague game in Mattawa against Overlake High School was interrupted by gunfire from a passing car. Some witnesses heard the men inside the car shouting gang allegiances as they drove by the field. Then they watched as the car continued up the hill away from the field.
"I didn't even know what was happening. They started screaming things, and a few seconds later they started speeding up," Tlatelpa said. "(The gunfire) sounded like fireworks at the beginning. Then we realized it was gunshots. That's when we all panicked. Then we all went into the building so no one could get hurt.
"Anything could have happened there. Anybody could have gotten shot. At that moment, everybody was in danger."
Coach deVictoria admitted the event shook him and his program to the core. He admits the incident affected his team's psychological state on the field.
"Let me ask you a question: How would you feel after an event like that? If I could have cancelled that next game, I would have. But also we're trying to get back on the horse," deVictoria said.
A Grant County Sheriff's deputy wasn't convinced that the soccer team or its fans were a target, according to a story by the Royal Register newspaper, but it was a somber wake-up call for the small community.
"Gangs are a reality. If we can keep the kids away from gangs, we can keep them safe," Cele Lopez said. "That's what soccer is all about."