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WHS girls soccer: Stressing the achievable

WORTHINGTON -- Emily Ahlquist describes herself as a very competitive person. But upon taking over the Worthington Trojans varsity girls soccer program five years ago, she soon learned that in order to be a successful coach she'd have to learn to...

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Worthington Trojans girls soccer coach Emily Ahlquist holds up a home-made sign she hopes will encourage the team this fall. (Doug Wolter/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Emily Ahlquist describes herself as a very competitive person. But upon taking over the Worthington Trojans varsity girls soccer program five years ago, she soon learned that in order to be a successful coach she’d have to learn to curb her lofty ambitions.

The Trojan soccer girls don’t measure success on the basis of wins and losses.

If they did, they’d be miserable.

Which is why today, with another challenging WHS fall campaign beckoning, the earnest girls soccer mentor channels legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi ... sort of.

“If it’s all about winning, then we shouldn’t have a program,” Ahlquist said.

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Coaches who learn to be successful on the field of play, like the late Lombardi (who said, ‘Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing’), tend to emphasize wins and losses, and the need to compile more of the former and less of the latter. Ahlquist says she likes to win, too, but she has learned to stress other goals that her soccer teams are more likely to achieve.

In 2016, the Worthington varsity soccer squad posted an 0-17 record, scoring only two goals during the entire schedule. It was more-or-less a typical season. In 2015, the team struggled in the same fashion, and goals were similarly hard to come by.

Ahlquist remembers her thoughts when she first took over the program. She knew it would be a team of diversity, and that she’d get a good portion of her players from cultures that are steeped in soccer.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be awesome. We are going to crush the opposition,’” she recalled.

But that didn’t happen. Most of her players came into the program with very little experience. It quickly became clear that minority boys had many more year-round soccer opportunities than girls, who tended to stay at home while their brothers were off learning the game’s fundamentals.

Even today, it’s fair to suggest that girls soccer just isn’t the draw that boys soccer is. Ahlquist says parental involvement continues to be lacking. It’s getting better, but the bleachers are still sparsely populated at game-time.

And yet …

And yet, the program is growing.

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And the girls are learning things that (with all due respect to Lombardi) are much more important than notches in the win column.

Realistic goals If you were one of the handful who attended WHS girls soccer matches in 2017, you might have been lucky enough to see a goal scored by a Trojan. And you might have giggled when, in a game that Worthington might have trailed 10-0 at the time, you saw the goal-scorer celebrating that moment as if she had won the state tournament single-handedly. In the same moment, you’d see a throng of teammates celebrating that same goal in like fashion.

Didn’t these girls realize they were losing badly -- again?

Well, yes. But it didn’t matter.

“We know that we’re not a team that’s going to be able to compete with some of the teams we play against. Because they have well-developed programs and a lot of those girls have played together since the sixth grade,” Ahlquist explains.

And so, the Worthington girls soccer program stresses teamwork, togetherness and personal growth above all else. Before every game during stretching exercises, Ahlquist and the Trojans share their individual goals -- realistic, attainable goals. For one player, it might be a desire to reach a loose ball before her opponent. For another, it might be to play two whole halves without a mental letdown.

After discussing individual goals, they discuss team goals. It’s seldom about winning the game, but rather it’s about starting out at a reasonable level. As the season progresses, the goals move incrementally higher.

“Of course they come in saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to state this year!’” Ahlquist muses.

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Soon enough, however, players lose their rose-colored glasses and learn to celebrate “the little things.”

“That lets them be happy at the end of the game,” said the coach.

Proper perspective For many fans, it may be difficult to understand what some construe as a de-emphasis on winning. But at the high school level, it’s still about what it’s always been about -- helping student-athletes mature as people, teaching them how to respond to adversity, and developing shared experiences that are remembered for a lifetime.

Coping with adversity is a key ingredient that shouldn’t be diminished. Adversity is unavoidable, and in high school it’s always front-and-center. For instance, very few high school athletic teams ever finish a season with a victory. Each season, there are many outstanding teams that end the year with a loss while attempting to become section or state champions. How we deal with losing distinguishes us from real winners and losers.

Ahlquist is determined to teach good sportsmanship among her charges. Whenever an opposing team comes to Worthington to play the Trojans, she chooses two players to show their rivals where the locker rooms are, and to see if they need water or anything else to make the experience as positive as it can be. In a word, it’s about respect.

Respect isn’t always reciprocated. Ahlquist remembers a time or two when her players -- whether it’s because many of them are from minority backgrounds, or because their competitive abilities are considered suspect -- have been treated poorly. But she’s proud to say that the Trojans have responded well to that.

And, of course, they’ve learned to respond well to being on the losing end of so many games.

“I’ve had refs come to me after games and tell me, ‘Your team has such a good attitude, even after losing nine to nothing. Most teams that lose that bad, they’re just nasty,’” Ahlquist said.

For the 2017 season, Ahlquist isn’t expecting miracles, but she hopes the squad will be a little more competitive than it’s been recently. The coach kept her freshman and sophomore players together last year so they could develop as a group during the junior varsity season, but she predicts that varsity progress will be slow in the early-going.

There are still few Trojan girls who play soccer in the offseason.

Whatever happens, however, Ahlquist will count it a success if her girls work hard, play together, and advance their personal growth. Bonding times, she said, are crucial for every teen-age athlete.

“I want them,” she said, “to experience a team, a family that’s very diverse but can get along and achieve something together.”

Related Topics: GIRLS SOCCER
Doug Wolter joined the Worthington Globe in December of 1983 as a sports reporter. He later became sports editor, and then news editor and managing editor. In 2006 he moved to Mankato with his wife, Sandy, and served as an editor at the Mankato Free Press. In 2013 he and Sandy returned to Worthington to take up the job of sports editor at The Globe, and they have been in Worthington since.

Doug can be reached at dwolter@dglobe.com.
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