Evergreen's pipeline for success

Courtesy of Evergreen Athletics

The caliber of talent for the women's soccer team at Evergreen continues to rise. Coach Felicia Perez's expectations for the players, seen here on a team backpacking trip, is for them to transfer to a four-year school eventually.

The Evergreen Valley College women's soccer season ended two weeks ago with the Hawks losing 4-0 to Fresno City College, the top seed in the California Community College playoffs.

Although the season is over, the work is not done. No one understands that better than Evergreen coach Felicia Perez.

"My expectation for them is to get them to stay in school and to get them to transfer to a four-year school," Perez said. "Sometimes it's still a battle."

A battle she is slowly, but steadily, winning.

Brighter future

Evergreen Valley has become a power in California Community College women's soccer since Perez arrived in 2006. She has constructed a consistently successful program -- including a conference title and four straight postseason appearances -- with mainly Latina student-athletes, many of whom never made their way through the club soccer system that flourishes in many affluent, suburban communities.

But the process she values most comes when her players are done playing for her. It's the one in which she and a committed college counselor shepherd young women -- who are often the first in their families to attend college -- and persuade them to keep going.

"A lot of these girls were never approached by a college coach, or never discussed college with their counselor in high school, or maybe they didn't take the right classes," said Evergreen counselor Mirella Burton, who has worked directly with the players on Perez's team for five years. "They were just getting by academically to play ball and didn't realize it could happen with a little more effort.

Courtesy of Evergreen Athletics

Sophomore goalkeeper Andrea Tapia is the first person in her family to attend college. She hopes to stay at Evergreen Valley another year, then transfer to San Jose State or Cal and major in electrical engineering.

"And when they get here, they are saying, 'I can't believe I'm here, that I have the opportunity to play soccer and put on a uniform and that I can go somewhere from here.' It's exciting to see how optimistic they become about what their future holds."

The only two athletic programs offered at Evergreen are men's and women's soccer, although a wider slate, including tennis and cross country, is in the planning stage.

"When I was hired, there were a lot of questions about what I would do with these players," Perez said. "When I got the job, this was an all-Latina team. I had come from Contra Costa College, and I was used to more diversity."

Her first season, there were 19 players of Latina heritage on the roster. And their experience in soccer varied widely. Some of them had only played a year or two of high school soccer. Many hadn't played any club soccer.

And soccer was not always the first priority.

"Some of them would bring their younger siblings to practice because they were baby-sitting or they would have to be excused to take them somewhere," Perez said. "The majority of them worked on the weekends, so I could never schedule anything on the weekends."

Perez persuaded many of them to come to Evergreen, not only for the opportunity to play collegiate soccer but for the opportunity to get a college education.

Perez approached Burton, the lead counselor in Evergreen's Enlace Program, for help. The Enlace program helps Chicano/Latino students successfully complete their academic core classes in English, math and science and guides them through transfer and occupational courses.

At first, Burton said, she was hesitant.

"I think I had a misconception about athletes and academics, but, considering that most of the team was Latina, I said I would help. And, after I spoke with Felicia for a while, I knew we were on the same page," Burton said. "The respect I have for these young women and what they are doing is immense."

Burton meets with the athletes regularly to talk about their academic progress and their lives and to plan their schedules with the goal of getting them to complete an associate degree or transfer. She is now a regular on the sideline at women's soccer games.

"I am a first-generation Latina," Burton said. "I get it. I speak both languages, and I feel like I'm able to connect with them."

Perez also understands the experience of many of her players. She is a Latina who grew up in a house where both of her parents worked two jobs. She struggled academically after her parents' divorce, went to community college in Sacramento as a multisport athlete out of high school, her motivation to go to school mostly related to her desire to play.

"I was a first generation in my family to go to college -- we didn't have a lot of books around my house growing up," Perez said. "In college, I had to work and go to school and do it all on my own.

"My community coach guided me and prodded me and asked me, 'Felicia, what do you want to do?' My community college experience turned my life. I try to teach from experience."

Being Latina connects her to her players, and her players to one another. "They all have stories," Perez said.

First-generation students

Andrea Tapia, Evergreen's sophomore goalkeeper, will finally be able to find a break in a schedule that's been morning, noon and night for the past few months. She works two jobs in addition to her classes and her soccer commitment in the fall.

They don't get the luxury of just coming to school, taking their classes and doing well academically. It can be a barrier sometimes. It's not that their families don't support them, but they don't understand what it means to be a student-athlete.
Evergreen counselor Mirella Burton

"Basically, I work at 5 a.m., eat on the way here, go to class -- I tutor if I don't have class -- then I go to practice, go home, shower, eat and go to bed," Tapia said.

Tapia is the first person in her family to go to college. Her parents did not finish elementary school in Mexico. She didn't think college was a realistic option, even as she finished her final few months of high school.

"Coach would come to talk to our team, and she told me that she could help me," Tapia said. "She told me she was committed to us, as students, making sure we could get ahead."

Tapia said she remembers her first day at Evergreen as "intimidating" and said she has relied heavily on older teammates to advise her on what classes to take, which instructors she would like.

Tapia said she did not want to see her family struggle financially as she got her education. It was her decision to work to pay her own way through school.

"Last quarter, I paid $800 for my classes -- that was a lot," Tapia said.

She works 28 hours a week at a local Home Depot store and 10-15 hours a week as a tutor on campus, mainly in math and English. And she has two younger sisters at home whom she helps with homework.

"I talk to them a lot about going to college." Tapia said.

Burton said she sees many of these girls with many priorities to juggle.

"They don't get the luxury of just coming to school, taking their classes and doing well academically," Burton said. "It can be a barrier sometimes. It's not that their families don't support them, but they don't understand what it means to be a student-athlete."

Tapia said her family is proud of her.

"They brag about me all the time," said Tapia, who is hoping to transfer to San Jose State or Cal and major in electrical engineering after spending one more year at Evergreen. She isn't sure she will be able to play soccer after she transfers.

"I don't think I can earn money and play soccer at the same time, and I want to make sure I get my school finished," she said.

Michelle Miranda played at Evergreen for two years after her sister did before her. A year past her eligibility, she still spends her time in study hall with her former teammates as she works to finish and prepares to transfer. She is applying to nursing schools at San Jose State, San Francisco State and Cal State East Bay.

She played soccer in her first two years of high school and wrestled in her final two years.

"My parents always told us they wanted us to do more than they did," Miranda said. "They didn't have high school educations; they grew up poor. My mother left the house when she was 13. They were supportive of anything we wanted to do."

Juggling priorities

Perez said family support varies widely among her players. Many families rely on their daughters to contribute to the family financially or help out at home. She had one who needed to take her pregnant sister to her doctor appointments, and, because the family only had one car, she had to leave practice early to take her.

"What do you say to that?" Perez said.

But she said she has had to "educate" some of her players' families about the importance of their soccer commitment.

"I've had some families, the parents who don't understand why they have to spend so much time with soccer," Perez said.

As the program has improved its results on the field, including last year's Coast Conference championship, the caliber of players has improved.

But that also has forced Perez into making some difficult decisions about borderline players for whom the opportunity to play was a lifeline.

"When I first got here, we took everyone and it was such a positive light in their lives, I remember it," Perez said. "But we'd get our butt kicked."

By 2010, she had 30 players out for tryouts. And she had to make cuts.

"Do you want to take everyone? Absolutely. But do you want to be a winning program?" Perez said. "In 2010, I hit that road. Those cuts hurt me. The biggest impact, I remember the time, where we were, who it was. It was a struggle."

What doesn't change is that her players continue to juggle. She had a handful of players, before the postseason began this fall, who had to drop units below what would make them eligible to play, depleting her roster.

"Just this week, getting ready for playoffs, I had four players who had to leave practice early to go to work," Perez said. "Most I've ever had. What do you do? We always talk about sacrifices."

Yet, despite fits and starts from the soccer perspective, the Evergreen program has become the pipeline Perez and the school administrators set out to create. Seven players transferred to four-year schools from last year's team. Burton said she has seen a "big jump" in the number of players who are prepared to continue their educations after they are done at Evergreen.

"When I was hired, the first question they asked me was how I was going to get these girls out of here and moving on," Perez said. "That's what I am here to do."

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