HALLSVILLE — John Tyler’s soccer programs rallied together to do something which last happened at the high school before current team members reached grade school.
The Lions captured the school’s first district title since 1996 while the Lady Lions qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
The school scheduled a pep rally today before the teams play a Class 4A bi-district doubleheader at Bobcat Stadium. The Lady Lions (12-8-4) meet Pine Tree at 6 p.m., and the Lions (16-5-1) follow against host Hallsville at 8 p.m.
“The kids are real excited and I’m excited for the kids to be recognized for the efforts,” JT boys soccer coach Howard Story said. “They want to feel like they’re part of the school.”
The Lions enjoyed a memorable stretch from 1994-97, winning two district titles, and reaching the regional tournament twice when Story served as assistant under former coach Demetrio Hernandez.
Under Story, JT continues to inch closer to past glory, when the program produced MLS veteran Daniel Hernandez of FC Dallas. JT reached the area round in Class 5A in 2009 and advanced to the sectional round in Class 4A a year ago.
“I was reminding the kids I’ve never won district,” Story said. “Three or four guys said “coach, we’re going to win district for you.’ They’ve carried through on their promise.”
Statistical leaders for the Lions include senior captain Abner Barrera (11 goals, six assists), senior striker Jose Hernandez (nine goals, seven assists) and junior forward Porfirio Benitez (eight goals, three assists). Story says everybody brings something to the table.
“I would say the team itself, even those coming off the bench, are always looking to contribute so the team will be successful,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to have skill players. We like to be a possession team. I’d like to see us patient so we can control the flow of the game.”
JT tuned up for the postseason with a 4-1 win over District 35 champion Jacksonville on Tuesday in Tyler. The Lions resumed their strong defensive play after allowing only six goals in district play.
“One thing we tried to emphasize was a little more defense,” said Story. “You want to be all business, but there has to be something mechanical to where it’s instinctive. I want them to understand the game so they can play as the game changes. Your success is measured by how well you do that.”
The Lions split two matches with Hallsville, losing their season opener at home, 2-1, to the Bobcats. JT cruised to a 3-0 win in the rematch.
“They’re a quality team,” Story said of Hallsville, which finished fourth in 32-4A. “You just can’t take anybody lightly. On paper I think we’re the better team. But what we’re going to have to do is show it on the field.”
JT’s quadrant in Region II appears favorable for a deep run. Story set up a potential area round match, on Monday versus Texas High in Longview, but remained wary of today.
“You don’t want to look too far ahead,” Story said. “I’d like to think we’re going to go out and play our best game and hopefully that’s enough to carry us through. In the playoffs it’s do or die. I’ve told the kids if you play your best, whatever happens, it’s hard to argue that.”
The Lady Lions’ seniors savored the chance to extend their seasons, that after watching the varsity go winless in district their first two years on campus.
“Throughout the season we’ve stayed as a team, and put in time and effort to everything we did,” said senior midfielder Mary Sue Rosales, the team’s second-leading scorer with 11 goals, who earned first team district honors last year and sophomore of the year accolades the year before. “It’s a great feeling to be in the playoffs and to finally know we did something good. Our coach (Paul Frye) has put in so much effort.”
Eymi Cornelio, a four-year varsity performer and first-team 11-5A selection in 2010, appreciates the progress first-hand.
“I’ve been on varsity four years and we didn’t have good seasons back then,” Cornelio said. “It feels great to know this is the second time the JT soccer girls made it to the playoffs.”
Freshman midfielder Esperanza Zavaleta tops the Lady Lions with 15 goals, something she credits to the team “communicating on the field.”
“This is not like any other team,” said Kabrea Pipkins, a sophomore defender who scored twice in JT’s district-opening win over Lindale. “We get along with each other when it’s time to do what we need to do. We stick with each other.”
With Frye raising the bar, the players followed suit.
“We wanted this,” said third-year varsity member Sulema Medina, who has merited all-district honorable mention twice. “We tried to achieve it and here we are.”
Ruby Ocanas, a senior keeper, acknowledged the team’s skill power, but appreciates their willpower even more so.
“We have skill people, runners and we have the kickers,” said Ocanas, who helped JT blank Jacksonville 2-0 in a warm-up match on Tuesday. “But more than anything we have the heart and determination to do this.”
Yelsi Rosales, who was born in 1997, the last season the JT girls advanced to the playoffs, says the team needs to stay close and motivated to advance.
“We consider ourselves not as a team but as a family, instead of friends, sisters,” Rosales said. “It’s (going to come down to) how hard you want it. You have to set it in your mind that you didn’t come this far to let anything go.”
LIONS’ TALES: To reach Bobcat Stadium, an artificial surface which seats an estimated 8,000, take Interstate 20 East to the Hallsville exit. Take a left on Highway 80. Take a right on Highway 80 to the first stoplight, and take a right. The stadium will be on the left. … The JT-Pine Tree girls’ winner advances to meet Mount Pleasant. JT-Hallsville boys’ winner meets Texas High in the area round.