Five seniors and five freshmen make up the vast majority of the Goose Creek Memorial girls soccer team’s lineup and the unique mix has worked to the tune of a 21-1-1 record heading into the final week of the regular season. In the back row, from left, are Tania Rodriguez, Fátima Medrano, Jailynn Lopez, Tania Gonzalez and Lauren Benavides; Bottom row from left are, Kennedy Tristan, Gloria Martinez, Hailey Pequeno, Ariana Veliz and Kayleen Figueroa. Not pictured is senior goalkeeper Syndie Gustavus

Shared passion for soccer unifies roster in title push

Goose Creek Memorial junior girls soccer right defender Erica Arterburn has the distinction of being the bridge in a very odd relationship

Arterburn – the only junior starter on a 21-1-1 team – separates the rest of a starting lineup that features the unique composition of five seniors and five freshmen.

The age dichotomy is not only unique, but historic as the team is heading to the Class 5A playoffs in three weeks and are in the hunt for a district title as one of Region 3’s best teams.

Yes, this mix of old and young has worked. It took five talented freshmen to move the dial upward following a postseason-less season to combine with the identical number of senior starters that wanted one last chance to do something special.

There was no power struggle. This was the beginning of a new family.

“I believe the reason they have blended so well together is 100 percent because of the senior group,” GCM head coach Roman Huizar said. “They have led the way and helped to protect and push the freshmen. To me the best type of leadership often times isn’t by voice but rather by actions. We had talent last year but what ultimately became our downfall was not being a team but having different agendas.

“I knew I had talent coming in that could help them, but we couldn’t have different agendas for what we wanted from this season.”

Huizar said the excellence of the five freshmen starters is buoyed by the seniors willingness to back their younger teammates in the face of threats by the opposition.

“These seniors have taken these young freshmen under their wings,” Huizar said. “They look out for them, protect them, encourage them, and treat them as equals. For the young freshmen they are not used to playing older players so that maturity is a big adjustment on the field, but with the senior group they have made that adjustment so much easier for them.”

It’s also hard to ignore the junior varsity starts five freshmen – with eight total on the roster – and are also in contention for a district crown.

The girls acknowledge the culture of competition and camaraderie Huizar has fostered has helped this experiment along.

The older players and coach acknowledge the talent the freshmen possessed, and they have delivered. Offensive threats Kennedy Tristan (12 goals, six assists), Hailey Pequeno (four assists), Kayleen Figueroa (three goals, two assists), Adriana Veliz (two goals, one assist) and defender Gloria Martinez have more than made their mark.

Senior field starters Fatima Medrano, Lauren Benavides, Jailynn Lopez and Tania Rodriguez have seen their games grow since last year – and throw in goaltender Syndie Gustavus and other classmates Tania Gonzalez, Brianna Dillow, Gloria Medina and Vanessa Mendoza, the youngsters have been surrounded by plenty of back up.

How much have the freshmen added to the quality of the team?

RODRIGUEZ: “They have come in with really good skills and their passion for the sport are the same with the whole team. That has helped us overall to work together. They are really humble even though they are really good. When we tell them stuff, they have open minds. Seeing how the freshmen have played to their potential every single game, it makes me want to do the same. They are pushing me to pick up the pace and try harder because that’s what they are doing. 

BENAVIDES: “We all have one thing in common which is soccer and our love for the sport. We don’t feel the difference between ages we are just a team and we learned a lot of that from Huizar. From team bonding and through cross country season in the beginning. Having that bond makes the team stronger. We are playing for each other and we are fighting together. We know how to separate business from personal and there is no drama. It’s just soccer. I didn’t picture my senior year to go like this – half freshmen. It’s different. They also motivate you, because I am older, to do more. At first, I was like ‘I’d be damned if I let a freshman take my spot.’”

MEDRANO: “With these freshmen, they have really rejuvenated me. Coming into the year, I was down and wondered what they were going to bring to the team. I have them to thank because I still love soccer. They strengthened my bond with soccer even more.”

Are the older girls ready to defend the younger ones?

BENAVIDES: “Whenever I see anyone getting pushed around, purposely fouled or targeted, I get protective over them. If you are pushing my team, I am going to push back. With our freshmen being the center of our team, that’s where the pressure and attack is at even more. Because they are young and smaller, we are always going to have their back. Now they need us, but they will get older and they will be able to protect themselves. You think how dangerous these girls will be when they have the strength and the mentality of us? Their senior selves with ours? Would be dangerous.”

RODRIGUEZ: “All of our seniors are really protective of the freshmen because we know what it’s like to be a freshman and going against bigger people who are 18 years old and you are 16 or 15. When we were freshmen, the seniors weren’t close with us. They wouldn’t give me any confidence at all. As a freshmen, I wasn’t as good as (the current ones) and I think being role models and helping them out to be a part of our team is a big reason that we are doing good.”

Have the freshmen thrived because of the seniors’ support?

TRISTAN: “At first I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out because of the age gap, but as we started to work together and the trust built you could see it on the field like a switch went on and we were connected. Now we are more than just soccer teammates.”

Have the freshmen played to the level they expected?

FIGUEROA: “I was so nervous and scared when we first came in, but when we started practicing more and I got confident. Me and Lauren played the same position at first and I was scared to go against her. We started going at it and we were competitive to see who would play more.”

PEQUENO: “We have done really good so far and we have done well as a team. I could just tell that the way we practice, we were going to have a really good team.”

BENAVIDES: “They came in as a group and there wasn’t any of that ‘I am the only one here.’ So, whenever they are all together, they see one doing good and so they think they can do it. They are like their own little team too. They give each other the confidence to play with us and it all works out in the end. We just play. They naturally fit in.” 

MEDRANO: “We were here at our soccer camp and I remember seeing Kennedy and Hailey and the other freshmen and we could see they can play really good. You start thinking ‘what an amazing team.’ I would play them at the camp and since they were younger and smaller, I totally underestimated them. They totally beat me up. I was struggling. They pushed me and I pushed them. If she is better, I want to be better, but it’s a healthy relationship.”

What have you learned from the older girls?

TRISTAN: “To be confident in myself. At first, I was hesitant to shoot, and they would be like, ‘you have the skill, be confident, this girl has nothing on you.’ They bring you up, it was never about bringing us down.”

FIGUEROA: “With them, they motivate us to be stronger, don’t be scared and keep going. I didn’t use my body at first, I was scared. As we go against harder people, I do. If they push me around now, I get mad.”

PEQUENO: “I learned to try new things, something new every day and take risks.”

Is this the way the seniors want to remember their final year?

RODRIGUEZ: “Definitely. Going into my senior year, I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I think as seniors and our attitudes towards the freshmen has been helpful and made them feel a part of the team and overall that has made this year really good regardless of where we are at.”

BENAVIDES: “I learned that everything comes to an end. You have to grow up. Every year, you want to be successful, but I didn’t think we would be this successful. I love it because it is my last year and it is a year to remember. It is ending with a bang, literally.”

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