Go ahead. Ask them. Ask any fan of the University Trojans’ soccer team about the most significant assist of the year, and the answer will always be the same. It had to be Jorge Barco’s brilliant 40-yard rocket that led to Francisco Ponce’s game-tying goal with just over two minutes to play in University’s shootout win over Mesquite Poteet in the Class 4A state semifinals.
Barco saved the season with that pass. A day later, University won the school’s first state championship, completing an unblemished 33-0-0 season. It just doesn’t get much bigger than that, right?
On the field, sure. But ask the University players about their favorite assists of the year and a myriad of responses will spring forth.
One guy will mention spending his Saturdays instructing elementary-aged energy bundles in the team’s Soccer Buddies program. Another might light up while talking about Meals on Wheels and delivering turkeys on Thanksgiving. Still others admit to shedding joyful tears while handing out Christmas gifts to needy children in Waco in conjunction with Make-A-Wish.
University’s run of victories in 2013 was remarkable, but no more so than the soccer program’s longstanding string of service to the community. It’s that on-field supremacy, coupled with their away-from-the-field generosity, that has made the Trojans this year’s recipients of the Tribune-Herald’s Sportsmen of the Year honor.
This team isn’t just about winning. It’s about giving. University head coach Mike Chapman organizes a regular array of service projects for his players both in and out of season.
“Coach Chapman, he likes everybody to remember where you come from,” said University’s Adam Gutierrez, a manager on last year’s team who will play forward in the 2014 season. “The majority of everyone here is based out of Waco, and we have to remember where we came from, whenever we become successful and go out. Like with Meals on Wheels, there are people out there who are less fortunate than us, who don’t have families. We have to be able to appreciate that.”
Player participation isn’t mandatory, either. But Chapman said it’s gotten to the point where the players angle to volunteer with the same verve that they might pursue a rebound off the crossbar.
“We’ll put up a sign-up sheet, first-come, first-serve, but a lot of times we’ll have to tell kids, ‘Hey, you can make the next one,’” Chapman said. “We don’t have a problem getting kids to go. They all want to go. That’s neat.”
When Chapman put together University’s soccer program 22 years ago, he had to scramble just to find 11 players to put on the field. “We had to recruit four or five football players just to fill out a team,” he said.
Growing pains followed, and were even expected. Whereas many of University’s opponents fielded rosters largely comprised of year-round soccer players who traveled with well-financed select teams in the summer, that wasn’t the case for the Trojans. The same holds true today, Chapman said.
Within time, though, University learned how to win. Playoff trips became routine. Younger kids in Waco ISD took notice, and talked with pride about the day that they too would be part of Trojan soccer.
“When I was in elementary, I used to get autographs from the University soccer players,” said goalkeeper Oscar Herrera. “ I used to be like, ‘Man, I want their autograph.’ Now it’s me, and I’m like, ‘I was that kid once.’”
It seemed as if University always had at least one player who could locate the back of the net with heavy frequency. But the one goal that remained chronically blocked was that of the state tournament.
“I’ve been on varsity since my freshman year, and what I noticed is that my freshman year we had so many superstars and it didn’t work out,” said senior midfielder Carlos Carrizales. “Years would pass by and we were just giving more effort every year.”
In 2013, the Trojans put together a tour de force show of tenacity, teamwork and talent. They were stifling defensively, delivering 22 shutouts and allowing more than one goal only once, in the state semis against Poteet.
They also might have excelled in UIL one-act play if they weren’t already occupied, showing a perpetual flair for the dramatic as the playoffs progressed.
In truth, the perfect season looked all but lost in the waning moments of the regional final against Houston Lee, as University trailed 1-0. But Michael Solis converted a clutch free kick with 18 seconds to play, and the Trojans went on to win on penalty kicks in a shootout.
Even the most fervent of Trojan believers was sweating that one.
“It was scary at the moment. Nervous nailbiters and stuff,” said senior forward Edward Ibarra.
“I was sweating it,” Herrera said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ There were 18 seconds left on the clock. I was already starting my speech, thinking, ‘Man, this is it.’ Luck, or God, just gave us another chance.”
Chapman, who also doubles as the head coach of University’s girls team, knows the work the season entailed as much as anyone. But he doesn’t discount the power of a fortuitous bounce here and there. The last three matches of the season produced such cliffhanger finishes, it felt like legitimate team-of-destiny stuff.
“After we tied the game with 12 seconds left, I said, ‘Guys, this just may be your year.’ And after we did it with two minutes left (in the next game), I said, ‘This really may be our year.’ I think it was just luck,” Chapman said. “A lot of luck to go with a lot of hard work. It was just our year.”
After University shut out El Paso Del Valle, 1-0, in the state final, the Trojan players were finally able to hold that long-awaited championship trophy aloft. Their 33-0-0 record made them just the second Class 4A team in UIL history to complete a season unbeaten, and no boys’ or girls’ team in any classification has registered as many as 33 wins.
“That feeling was amazing. It never happens,” Ibarra said. “Once in a lifetime it happens. It just felt so good. Afterwards we were like, ‘Ahhh.’ Relaxed, relieved.”
“You just look up and see all your teammates, some who have graduated, some who are still here,” Ponce said. “You just look at it, and you think, ‘You were on that team, and you’re going to be on there forever.’ You’re always going to be connected in some sort of way.”
Even in the midst of such a singularly personal achievement, University’s players didn’t keep their win to themselves. They dedicated the state title to the city of West, which had endured a tragic explosion at a fertilizer plant just three days prior.
The Trojans’ giving spirit was actually born from a football coach’s speech. A little over a decade ago, a University High baseball player died suddenly, and the family wasn’t able to afford the funeral costs, Chapman said. Chapman commissioned former Baylor football coach Grant Teaff to speak at a fundraiser event for the family, and Teaff’s message resonated with the soccer coach.
“He talked about how to have a successful program: Positive attitude, self-discipline, effort and heart,” Chapman said. “Along with that, he talked about your athletes being well-rounded for after school, life and everything.”
Chapman took those words to heart. He set out to improve his players’ academic success rate – “Now we’re graduating 99-point-something percent,” he said – and their involvement in the community.
“You really get the pride, the self-enjoyment, that you’re helping someone else,” Ponce said. “You feel better about yourself, and about helping someone less fortunate than you.”
It’s gotten to the point where the team that once had to scrounge for players in order to avoid forfeits now stands as a beacon for schools all over the state. At the Texas High School Football Coaches Association’s annual convention last summer, Chapman presented a well-received lecture on how to build a successful, all-around program.
“Afterwards we had coaches coming up and saying, ‘How do you get your kids involved? How do you do that? Your kids show up for it?’” Chapman said. “Our team, they’re not just out here playing soccer and then going home. They hang together. We go to hospitals together. They enjoy being around each other, we enjoy being around them. They’re a lot of fun. It’s really brought our team together.”