Bodies zigged, zagged and criss-crossed at girls soccer practice Thursday at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
A few months removed from his personal breakout season for the boys squad, Alfredo Lopez jogged from station to station. This spring, he and Cruz Artega serve as managers. Boys head coach and girls junior-varsity coach Chris Interone says there’s a waiting list.
After a first touch with his knee to control the ball, Lopez popped up a volley with the inside of his foot. He turned, breezed past senior Sydney McCaslin, grabbed an errant pass and threw the ball back to Taylor Pomahatch before another juggling exhibition at the next station.
Five minutes went by, the drill switching to a chest for the first touch. Then a header. Lopez gave a textbook example of how it’s done with the biggest of smiles, a microcosm of why the girls’ program is headed in the right direction:
Everyone needs someone to show them how it’s done.
“When we play games like keep-away or freeze tag, going against him definitely teaches you about playing defense,” Pomahatch said of squaring off against Lopez. “I can’t say it enough: The better players you work with, the faster you learn and the better you become.”
The boys team turned the super-fast field turf at Roscoe Eades Stadium into the ultimate home-pitch advantage last season.
“They – honestly – are so much different than us,” McCaslin said, a forward. “We say we pass well, but they’re phenomenal.”
But it wasn’t long ago that the boys were where the girls hope they are now: the tail end of the building process.
The program was truly hitting its stride around the time senior Allie Johnson was in eighth grade and her family hosted foreign exchange student Daniel Ortega. She watched him and the spitfire Sterling kickers, then he would conduct brief clinics in the Johnsons’ back yard.
“I had really never played before,” Johnson said. Today, it’s the midfielder’s favorite sport, and fourth-year head coach Brian Cebula calls her the “heart of the team.”
“She has been for the past few years.”
Exposure is vital, and that’s where the Sterling United youth program is paying dividends.
“It might have been around, but it wasn’t something that was advertised,” McCaslin said, thinking back to when she was younger.
But word of mouth has turned the program into a feeder system.
The Golden Warriors boast a freshmen class unlike any the program has seen. Pomahatch and McCaslin gush over Rosa Sanchez’s skill. They’re both midfielders, and Sanchez is also listed as a forward.
“Rosa is one of the best younger girls I’ve ever seen play,” Pomahatch said.
Pomahatch, like McCaslin and Johnson, is entering her fourth varsity season. Having played since third grade, she’s grateful that her family’s then-hometowns in Wisconsin and Nevada had developmental teams. She feels kickers in Sterling weren’t given the same opportunities.
“Soccer hasn’t been around here very long, so a lot of people don’t know how to play until they get to high school,” Pomahatch said. “People criticize us all the time that we’re not playing that well, but it’s something you have to work on your whole life to get good at it. You have to be with the same team for a long time.”
That became glaring when Pomahatch served as a manager for the boys team as a junior in the fall of 2011. She played with the stalwart players spent many years building synergy. Then she played with them during the summer. While her skills sharpened, it made the spring trying, at times.
“It makes you work a lot better with them and makes you want to bring it to our team, too,” Pomahatch said.
When Brian Cebula took over the program 4 years ago, about 30 players tried out. After a few more the next year and about 45 a year ago, he, junior varsity coach Chris Interone and new freshman coach Allen Stewart oversee about 65 players. And they’re finally grasping and applying Cebula’s possession-emphasis system.
“I’m not big on the aerial game. It’s much easier to control when it’s already on the ground for you,” Cebula said. “I see the girls getting better every single year, and it’s special that this is the first group I’ve seen all 4 years through. I want to see them do well.”
It was breathtaking for all parties involved when runs started getting rewarded by well-timed through-balls.
“It feels good. It feels so good,” Pomahatch said. “If it works, goes to you and you can get around someone? It feels amazing. I felt like we connected more as a team. We passed to each other a lot more and made runs that we’ve never made before. It comes with trust. We have to know each other and know what we’re going to do.”
McCaslin’s eyes get wide when she talks about what it would mean for she and her fellow seniors to go out with their first winning campaign.
“I would be ecstatic,” said McCaslin, who plans to play club soccer at the University of Wisconsin. “That’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. That would be phenomenal.”
“It would make us sad that we’re leaving, but…” Pomahatch chimes in. “If anything, we know we’re going to be better than last year, and that will have to be enough for us.”