After Southwestern’s 2-0 victory over Schreiner last Friday, Pirate forward Garrison Engstrom found Mountaineers midfielder Caleb Hernandez on the sidelines and embraced him.

“Good game,” Engstrom said to his longtime friend.

The match on Schreiener’s campus offered a familiar scene. Once again, the two former Hill Country Crush teammates were playing on the same pitch. And once again, Engstrom could hear Hernandez’s dad, Rutilio Hernandez, yelling enthusiastically from the bleachers throughout the afternoon.

Only this time, Rutilio wasn’t cheering for Engstrom’s team. Still, Engstrom enjoyed hearing him again — it brought back a lot of good memories.

After all, Friday’s match represented a special moment for both Engstrom and Hernandez, capturing the progress they’ve made since joining Crush in 2012. It also revealed the strides men’s soccer has made in the Hill Country in the last few years. Several years ago, there weren’t many local players who were playing college soccer. But now? Four players just from the Class of 2019 are representing the Hill Country at the next level. This wasn’t even the first time Engstrom has played against a former teammate this season. He squared off against former Crush and Tivy alum Jasen Zirkel when the Pirates tied Zirkel’s University of Mary-Hardin Baylor, 1-1, on Aug. 30. (The fourth player, Stephen Canty, plays goalkeeper at SMU, currently No. 4 in the United Soccer Coaches poll).

“It’s really awesome,” Engstrom said. “I also enjoyed seeing (Zirkel) play, and lining up against him was pretty cool. I’m proud of how much we all have accomplished together and how far we have come.”

Indeed. Before Friday’s match, Engstrom and Hernandez spent years laboring to improve their game, and both credit Crush for helping them accomplish that goal.

Hernandez still remembers a match from his first year with Crush, a playoff match that was decided by penalty kicks. He also recalls being terrified when Crush coach Jorge Salinas selected him to attempt the first kick.

“You’re crazy, coach,” Hernandez told Salinas. “Why me?”

Ultimately, Hernandez didn’t have anything to fear. He drilled the kick, and Canty made a few clutch saves to seal the match, sending Crush to the state tournament in Brownsville.

“That was the first time I realized I could do something awesome for the team and help them out,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez continued to love soccer from that point. Even though his high school (Comfort) didn’t have a soccer team, he continued playing club soccer, and attended as many Tivy matches as possible to support his Crush teammates. When Schreiner expressed interest, Hernandez pounced on the opportunity to play close to his family.

“At first, (Hernandez) was a timid kid,” Salinas said. “But after awhile, he was one of the guys we depended on to finish, assist or defend. … Once he came out of his shell, he definitely blossomed.”

Engstrom also struggled with self-confidence in his first year with Crush, describing himself as a “chunky kid” who didn’t have the same skillset as some of his teammates.

“I was a little awkward,” Engstrom admitted.

Those same teammates, though, motivated him to become a better soccer player. He trained with Salinas during the summers to improve his conditioning. By the time he entered high school, he was a different player. During his senior year at Tivy, he was a second-team, all-district selection, netting six goals and four assists to help the Antlers advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2004.

“His mentality was insane,” Salinas said of Engstrom. “I knew he was meant to do something great if he wanted to. He pushed himself to that point. … You could tell he really took becoming a better person, a better athlete, to a completely different level and ran with it. It shows because now he has an opportunity to play at the college level.”

And so far, both Engstrom and Hernandez have capitalized on that opportunity. After having the same teammates for the past eight years, it’s been challenging adjusting to the playing styles of their college peers. But so far, they have been successful beginning the next chapter in their lives. Engstrom has started four games, and Hernandez scored two goals during Schreiner’s win over Austin on Sept. 22

In other words, they have acclimated to the college level.

But Friday’s match showed they will always treasure the relationships with their Crush teammates (Engstrom still texts Zirkel for updates on his season).

And Engstrom and Hernandez haven’t seen the last of each other; they play again on Oct. 20. Before he left Schreiner, Engstrom told Hernandez to get ready for that match.

“I hope nothing but the best for them,” Salinas said. “I hope they can continue this beautiful language we call soccer that’s spoken all over the world. I hope they can continue that.”

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