Fresno Bee – When Armenian soccer club Ararat Yerevan FC kicks off Thursday night against the Fresno Fuego at Chukchansi Park, it’s not just another preseason exhibition.
For Ernest Hekimian, 69, it’s a heartwarming salute and reminder of his days with the Fresno Ararat Soccer Club.
The year was 1970 and Hekimian was a 24-year-old striker eager to play soccer.
But as a newcomer to the San Joaquin Valley, emigrating from Soviet Russia and eventually settling in Fresno, he was left searching for that missing piece of home.
“I was asking some Armenian guys if they had a soccer team,” Hekimian said. “They had a league, they said, but they didn’t have an Armenian soccer team.”
So Hekimian made one and named it after his favorite club from the motherland: Ararat Yerevan FC.
“I chose the name because (Ararat Yerevan) was a good team, a very good team. Other villages and cities had clubs but none stronger than them,” Hekimian said.
Fresno Ararat rose through the ranks of the San Joaquin Valley Soccer League’s senior division until the club’s end in 1989.
The team was mostly coached by the late Edward Baladjanian, a visionary for the city’s youth soccer programs alongside Harold Young.
“I loved him like an older brother,” Hekimian said. “He helped a lot. We had practices in the rain, and even though he was sick, he was always out there.”
Baladjanian died in 1995, but his legacy lives on in the name of the Fresno Ararat Soccer Club, which won SJVSL titles 1977-78, ’80-’81 and ’82-’83.
In 1974, the team made an impressive run for an amateur state title, reaching the championship of the Division II Northern California Soccer Football Association.
Ararat eventually fell to Juventus Soccer Club of the Peninsula League in San Francisco.
The Fresno side fielded just two American-born players in David Hollingsworth and Greg Brittan. The rest were from all over the globe, not just Armenia, according to a 1974 Fresno Bee article: Hekimian, who was known on the field by his middle name Massis, was born in France; Yussef Aibaseeri, Kuwait; Hagop Der Boghossian, Neshian Soghomonian, Hampig Kasparian and Kaled Skuate, all from Syria; Herman Murganyan, Turkey; Fayez Shahian, Palestine; Ahamed Shomroukh from Lebanon; and Mike Ross from Scotland.
It wasn’t always about results. It was about an atmosphere created every Sunday on the soccer fields in Fresno, Tulare, Hanford and other cities around the Valley.
Hekimian’s son, Alex, 42, remembers vividly those afternoons at Romain Playground, where he would order a pita bread sandwich from one of the many food trucks and sit on the grass to watch his father play.
“It was a Sunday thing like people go to church, we’d go to soccer,” Alex Hekimian said. “It’s no joke. There was nothing else to do. It was life. Soccer was life. That’s what came first in the family.”
Holmes and Romain playgrounds were the hot spots of amateur soccer in Fresno and the sidelines would fill with hundreds of spectators – mostly the friends and families of the coaches and players.
Each team – such as Fresno Oro, Mexico, Fresno Internationals, Académica from Hanford and more – had its own rich history.
Jaime Ramirez, the Fresno Pacific men’s soccer coach who also was the Fuego’s first coach from 2003-07, remembers playing with Fresno Ararat on Sundays and the impact it had on him as a 19-year-old freshly graduated from Clovis High.
He played five years with Ararat, at the same time as his playing career at Fresno Pacific.
“It helped me make the transition from high school youth into adult soccer that eventually propelled me into the kind of soccer player I became. It was very competitive,” Ramirez said.
But as much as the personal growth, he remembers the impact the SJVSL clubs had in the region.
“It laid a foundation of soccer in this community,” he said. “It was the golden era of soccer in the San Joaquin Valley. It was a beginning point that, in an amateur way, professionalized the sport in the area.”
It’s been more than 40 years since Ararat Yerevan FC last visited Fresno. In 1974, the club played an exhibition against Mexican side Jalisco in front of a sellout crowd at Ratcliffe Stadium. It was part of a three-stop California tour for Ararat Yerevan FC, which was celebrating its 1973 Soviet Cup championship.
“It was packed,” Ernest Hekimian recalled. “There was no place to walk.”
This week’s return visit by the team sparked fond memories of that visit, as Hekimian ruffled through old newspaper clips and photos from that day.
“It was very exciting. I was following them like a little kid,” he said.
But most of all, it was the the beautiful game and the joy it brought to him and his brothers on the soccer field.
“It was pleasure and happiness to bring the Armenian young men together, to do something together we did back home. We were all so happy.”
“Soccer,” Hekimian added, “it made Fresno home.”