WARREN - Success didn't happen for Diane Hernandez in her first year as Warren G. Harding's girls soccer coach.
Sure, the Raiders finished 5-7-3, a respectable mark, but they didn't reach the expectations she and the rest of the team set.
And Hernandez really didn't know why - at first.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Warren G. Harding’s Emily Stone, center, and Cleveland Heights’ Chloe Sudduth, right, fight for the ball during Wednesday’s game at Mollenkppf Stadium. WGH won, 1-0.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Harding's Kayla Statema gains control of the ball and looks toward the goal during first half action against Cleveland Heights.
Hernandez was an assistant at Harding for three years prior to taking over for George Capellas last season, so she already had a relationship with the team, and she knew the Raiders had a talented group returning. But, the overall skill and understanding of the players didn't translate into a winning formula.
"Last year I thought we were good, but they didn't really perform the way I expected them too," she said.
That hasn't been the case this season. The Raiders are off to a 9-2-2 start, 3-1-1 in the Lake Erie League, and defeated some of the top teams in the area during their run. They allowed just one goal in their first four games and yielded a total of seven through 13 games this season (five came in one contest).
Hernandez, a 1973 Harding graduate, said the biggest change has been the Raiders' commitment to playing together. Harding boasted athleticism at numerous positions through the years, but the Raiders weren't able to mend the parts together. Hernandez said the kids growing up, mentally and physically, played a role in ending that trend, as did the fact that several players have been part of the same club soccer team for years.
"You can have good soccer players, but unless they gel as a team, it can be very difficult (to win)," Hernandez said. "These kids have matured. The first group that came in as club players are seniors now, and they've played together for six or seven years, so they've reached a level of maturity that they can play as a team. That's been our biggest challenge over the last few years. They finally realized that it's a team sport and not an individual sport, and that's probably been the biggest difference."
One clear sign of that progress is junior Sara Rich. The center midfielder for Harding has been a model of consistency on the field for the Raiders, but she's been just as vital as a leader and a mentor, especially with the freshmen and sophomores, who are still learning what high school soccer is all about.
Rich said she endured a rough freshman season, one that was plagued by injuries and team dissention, but instead of moping, she learned from the experience and found a way to instill values to underclassmen. She said that concept is one the rest of the juniors and seniors have grasped as well.
"A lot of us have played together for years, with travel soccer and club teams, and we have knowledge of each other," Rich said. "So what we tried to do was, the upcoming freshmen, who might not know how things are, we wanted to get them to conditioning and to interact with us and play at our level, so they feel more comfortable. Now they know how we play, and they can feed off whatever we give them. That's kind of how we built things up from the preseason."
The camaraderie is only half the story, however. Skill and a tremendous amount of team speed are other key attributes the Raiders possess.
Harding is led by captains, Rich, senior midfielder Allison Hernandez and junior middle defender Emily Stevens. But that's just the beginning of the talent pool for the Raiders. Senior Jackie Callow is another key contributor, as is senior forward and the team's leading-scorer, Aminah Wesley. The depth continues with Anastashia Garrison, a senior right wing, Kayla Statema, a senior wing midfielder, Markie Marousis, a senior forward and wing midfielder, and Kaitlyn Welke, a senior midfielder.
Almost the entire Harding roster is made up of players who were a part of the Warren Soccer Club, which was run by Hernandez for years. While Hernandez said operating the program was "the hardest job I ever had in my life," the experience at the club and with former coach Capellas also allowed her to learn from a number of instructors.
"I was in contact with coaches from Austintown, Canfield, Boardman, Mooney - all over," she said. "Then, I actually met a guy by the name of Anthony James, he runs the Soccer Vision Academy. He's an interesting fellow. He's run academies in Atlanta and has coached some college teams - he coached at YSU for a few years - and he was very successful as a high school coach in West Virginia. He was kind of a mentor for us over the last few years. He's been a tremendous source of information. He's taken an interest in our kids, and he's willing to teach anyone who will listen. He has just a wealth of knowledge, and he's been a huge influence on me."
The overall guidance has molded Hernandez into the coach she is today, and as she progressed, so have the Raiders. The development is continuing to grow. Harding defeated Cleveland Heights, 1-0, on Wednesday. The Raiders lost to the Tigers, 5-0, earlier this season.
The improvement isn't surprising to Rich.
She said she's noticed a vast difference in Hernandez from her first season to this one, and noted that "everything takes practice." Two things that stayed the same, Rich said, are Hernandez's communication skills and her overall principles as a coach.
"She's probably one of the most comforting people that I can go to talk to," Rich said. "I'm not afraid to talk to her because she's so open. I've known her since I was 12, and she's just an open person. She's not standoffish, she's open to questions that don't even have to do with soccer. She's definitely had a big impact, especially on the girls who come up because of the comfort level she has. She's not one of those coaches who stands there with a whistle and makes you feel like Guinea pig. She'll stop and explain things.
"She's an all-around good coach, a good person and she's creating a good environment at soccer."
The results are there to prove it.