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State Champions:Hill Country Girls U16 team shares inspirational success story

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Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2019 10:40 pm

At one point during the South Texas Youth Championship State Finals on Dec. 8, assistant coach Marty Garcia decided to gather the Hill Country Girls U16 soccer team for another one of his classic pep talks.

The weather in College Station that weekend was horrific: temperatures in the lower 40s, chilling winds and a steady drizzle of rain. In other words, not ideal weather for soccer. Garcia decided his players needed a motivational speech to endure the harsh conditions.

Garcia, who teaches art at Tivy, has loved painting pictures since the third grade. His love for art explains his penchant for delivering motivational speeches. Through his words, Garcia hopes to paint a narrative, hoping to inspire his players before their upcoming matches.

“I give a lot of ridiculous speeches that have nothing to do with soccer,” Garcia confessed. “They are creative things that I come up with to motivate the girls.”

In this particular speech on Dec. 8, with frigid rain descending from gray skies, Garcia’s message to his girls was simple: He wanted them to write their own story.

So far, the story that his players have decided to write has been inspirational. They come from humble origins. The majority of them began playing soccer for the Hill Country’s American Youth Soccer Organization. They don’t have access to the resources that other select travel teams enjoy. And their coaches — Jess Erlund and Garcia — are team dads who simply enjoy spending time with their daughters and their friends.

And yet, they are one of the best soccer teams in Texas.

At the beginning of December, they captured first place at the Div. II District fall championship at the new sports complex in Kerrville. A week later, they traveled to College Station and secured the Div. II championship. The girls later admitted that they were exhausted from playing soccer matches in terrible weather. Still, they had enough energy to

celebrate their accomplishments.

“When we heard the news that we won, we just did a mosh pit around (coach) Marty,” Zoe Pelton said. “It was great.”

There’s even more good news for Pelton and her teammates: They haven’t finished writing their story yet. No player on the team is older than the age of 15. They have an opportunity to impact soccer in Kerrville for the next several years.

“They love the game,” said Erlund, the father of team goalkeeper Hailey Erlund. “I have just enjoyed watching them grow up so much. I have probably coached several of these girls since they were 6 or 7 years old, when they were still playing in (Kerrville’s) AYSO recreation league. Realizing that just makes you go, ‘Wow’”

Sitting at a long table in Kerrville’s Starbucks, the girls explain the reasons behind their success. For starters, it’s obvious they love their coaches — and for good reason. Erlund and Garcia form a strong team.

Erlund handles most of the paper work and the team’s finances, which affords Garcia time to plan practice drills and concoct his next big motivational speech. 

During the interview in Starbucks, the girls exchange laughs as they share their favorite Garcia speeches. Carmela Garcia even remembers a time her father found a way to make pickles come across as inspirational.

“He explained how they can be sweet and sour,” said Carmela, laughing. “Off the field, you are supposed to be sweet. But when you get on the field and start playing, you are supposed to play sour.” 

Coaching, though, is just one of the ingredients to the Hill Country Girls’ success story. 

Erlund and Garcia attribute most of that success to the girls’ determination. They have been playing together for the past seven years. They admit that there were times they considered giving up soccer. But ultimately, they all decided to stick with the sport and continue to improve. The results from that decision speak for themselves.

Forward Alexis Doyle gives another reason for her team’s triumphs: Her teammates abstained from participating in drama. There are no cliques within the team. Instead, the girls admit that they all get along well with each other. It’s why they have been able to deliver so many masterful performances on the soccer pitch this fall.

“We did have separate groups and people who would only hang out with certain people,” said midfielder Malia Kniffen, a sophomore at

Tivy.  “But recently, we all have become one big group.”

And that’s why they were able to defeat so many talented opponents. During the fall season, they only lost once, a 1-0 defeat to Bastrop Inferno during their final match in College Station. The loss really didn’t matter — the Hill Country girls had won their first two matches in the round-robin style tournament, which gave them enough points to clinch the championship. But, the setback to Bastrop devastated them. They wanted to finish the season undefeated.

“We did the work that we had to do the first two games to set ourselves up to be the champs, but the girls wanted to win every game,” Garcia said. “When we lost that last game, they were still sad, and I couldn’t cheer them up one bit. … They were trying to be perfect.”

The Hill Country U16 girls might have fallen just short of attaining perfection, but they still accomplished a goal that Garcia set for them several years ago. Hailey Erlund recalls another speech that Garcia gave to them, when they first started playing together. She remembers him telling them that if they continued playing soccer together, they could accomplish special things.

That speech proved to be prophetic. They have already won one state championship. Garcia, though, believes there could be more championships in store when they play for Tivy. (Several of the players will be freshmen on Tivy’s girls soccer’s varsity squad. The Lady Antlers open the season today at the Corpus Christi Tournament)

“Two years ago, (Coach Erlund and I) told them, ‘You are going to be the best group of girls to ever step onto the Tivy soccer field.’ That was our goal as coaches,” Garcia said. “I don’t know if they believed it then … I think they now truly believe they are close to being exactly that.”

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