Soccer has been described in terms of elegance and beauty, a chess game in constant motion. Soccer is primarily a players’ game rather than a coaches’ game. It requires an almost intuitive sense of team – no huddles, no plays called in by a coach, It’s all up to the players.
Maybe it was that characteristic of the game that helped foster this year’s junior varsity girls soccer team’s spirit. The JV Lady Broncos, all 28 of them, attracted the attention of opposing teams, coaches and tournament directors during the season for their enthusiasm and spirit.
Coach Cathy McKinley describes this season as one of the most successful in her years of coaching. The success didn’t come in the win/loss count, she said. “We lost more games than we won, but no one around us would ever know that from the way the girls went into every game whole-heartedly and with excitement and energy.”
The year started with only a few girls who were competitive at the JV level and 10 who had never played on a soccer team before. The majority had played on soccer teams but not recently. McKinley, working with assistant coaches Oscar Morales and Amy Zappia, had a challenge: how to teach the basics and keep the more experienced players challenged – how to turn 28 girls into a team.
The coaches’ approach was to be strict, to require girls to be at practice and on time or they didn’t get to go to the next game. If there was disrespect to team members or the coaching staff, the offender had to sit out half a game. “If the girls were gossiping and stirring things up on the team,” said McKinley, “they were called on it. It wasn’t tolerated.”
The tactic worked. “We had 28 girls working together, enjoying each other, loving the game,” said McKinley. “The team spirit was amazing.”
How do 28 girls not fall victim to the Mean Girls syndrome? Isn’t insecurity part of being a teenage girl?
Nicole Riley had an answer, one that explains why their team spirit was so amazing. If one of the players had certain skills, maybe lacking in other players, “we looked on that, or other differences, as a good thing for the team.”
“We also had team captains and other team leaders who were very positive,” said McKinley.
This team spirit and enthusiasm was noticed at some of the tournaments the JV team attended.
In January, they traveled to a tourney in San Pedro. With three losses, the team was scheduled to play another 0-3 team on the final day. To prepare for the game, they all headed to the beach. When the team got back to the tournament site and started warming up, they learned their opponents, from about an hour north of L.A., had left.
“The girls decided as a team to play 9 to 9, they played each other,” said McKinley. “The site director was so kind to us, we asked her to join in the game. Someone watching the game saw the girls’ spirit and attitude and later offered to pay our way to come back to the tournament next year.”
The same thing happened at the Tulare Tournament. Osama Hamid, the girls’ head soccer coach at Tulare Western High, forwarded a letter to the team stating “the Bishop High JV girls soccer team and coaching staff represent the absolute true spirit of soccer.”
The girls didn’t come out with soccer team skills. While roughly 90 percent are Hispanic and grew up in families where the ball of choice was black and white, soccer, culturally, is not considered a team sport for girls. Even McKinley had the same cultural bias growing up in England, where “football” is the national pastime.
The girls had to “toughen up,” according to Morales, to survive an 80-minute game. Nayeli Esparto even admitted to not knowing what her job was going into her first game on defense. “The other players helped me understand,” she said. Esparto became the go-to Bronco, according to Morales, for drawing opponents of the ball. “She got real good at stirring things up,” he said, “on the field.”
Soccer is an intricate game. Players have to communicate to their team members with their body language, according to Zappia. They have to let the ball do the work or they can’t last for a whole game.
McKinley worked on basics with the gang of 28, concentrating on specific patterns of play. Practice was a series of short games. Sounds simple until you realize coaches don’t call those patterns into the team; the pattern had to be determined by the where the ball was on the field.
So what else did the girls learn, in addition to patterns and strategy and ball control? “Never give up, no matter what,” said Lizbeth Santana. “Anyone can be a leader,” said Carina Morales.