By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Daily Sun Sports
Lexi Riggs noticed the trophies right away.
They were big and impressive, and they honor the women’s soccer program at Navarro College, where the Lady Bulldogs had made five trips in the past 11 years to the national tournament before this season.
Pretty impressive stuff, right?
Well, not to Riggs.
“They’re trophies for getting to the national tournament,’’ said Riggs, an all-conference defender at Navarro. “They’re participation trophies.’’
Then Riggs, who is a dynamo on defense, changed her demeanor, her eyes flashing and voice rising as she said: “I don’t want a participation trophy. I don’t want one of those. We’re not going to participate. We want a ring! We want the national championship!’’
That may be all you really need to know about this year’s Navarro women’s soccer team, which plays Eastern Florida State Monday night in Melbourne, Fla. in the opening round of the NJCAA Division I national finals.
But there is so much more to this team, this group that marched to the nationals arm-in-arm with a single heartbeat that not only inspired and took flight, but defied logic and reason and turned what could have been a nightmare into a dream season.
No one knew what would happen back in August when Navarro began this magical season with more questions, more puzzles and more players than ever before.
Twenty-nine, count ‘em — 29 players — were on the roster, and 25 of them were freshmen. It was a formula for disaster. How are 29 young women fighting for 11 spots on the field going to get along, and how is Navarro going to continue its rich tradition in soccer with 25 new faces?
They could have printed “Wait till next year” bumper stickers in August.
“The most we’ve ever had were 22 players,’’ said Coach Debbie Bonner, who runs the team with her husband Aric. “We didn’t know how they would get along. A lot of times people want to be selfish and it gets ugly when it’s about me, me, me.’’
It turns out that’s Navarro’s secret, that’s what made this team so special — so different than any of the teams that played before (and possibly the ones that play after) the 2013 team.
“It has been different this year,’’ Bonner said. “It’s been different from the beginning because of the way they get along. The way they push each other and the way the pull for each other. That’s what’s made the difference the whole year.’’
That push-and-pull dynamic not only created a spirit on the field, where Navarro (16-3-1) has simply dominated teams, but it was the at the heart of a bond that has made this team as close as any .
Somehow, these kids who have had to fight and scratch for playing time became the best of friends.
“We’re soccer sisters,’’ Riggs said. “We have each other’s back, and we have fun together. That’s what has made us better. When everyone’s heart is it, you know you can win it.’’
The competition for playing time produced something new at Navarro.
“We have enough players to have 11-on-11 scrimmages,’’ Aric Bonner said. “With injuries we could never really do that before, and that has helped. And because of that, the learning curve for the second group has been that much better. We have a strong second squad. There’s not much of a drop-off with the second team.
“And they really like each other. It’s a team, 1 through 29,’’ he said. “It’s a team. They fight for each other.’’
This Navarro team has something no team had before. The Bonners worked like crazy and raised enough money to build a fieldhouse just for the women’s soccer team, and the main locker room has state-of-the-art facilities, including lots of roomy coaches and large TVs. They not only watched more game film than ever before, but the kids hung out there and watched movies together. They cooked and ate together, had movie nights and just spent more time with each other.
“We just bonded,’’ said Shanice Foster, an all-conference midfielder from Jamaica. ‘Everybody on this team is so close. We spend so much time with each other and everyone just jokes and we have so much fun. They call me Frosty the Snowman because my name is Foster. It’s like that, everyone is funny. We do fun stuff together and everybody makes everyone laugh. We are just such a close team.”
Foster now has a Mohawk with a shocking streak of red in her hair and when she changed her style and the color, the one-liners came from everyone.
“Yeah,’’ she said. “They said I looked like a snow cone .’’
Foster’s hair may have a peak, but the Lady Bulldogs might not have reached theirs.
“I still don’t think we’ve peaked yet,’’ Debbie Bonner said. “Every game we’re seeing something different. Every game we’re making adjustments.’’
They climbed all the way to the No. 1 ranking in the nation this season, but a loss to Paris on a rainy and mud-soaked field in the last game of the regular season dropped Navarro to No. 3. It doesn’t matter now. There are 12 teams left in the nation, and someone will win it all this week.
They get it at Navarro. When the team jumped in the rankings after beating No. 4 Tyler early in the season, Bonner sent the word out to her kids and they all text her back with the same message — it doesn’t mean anything now.
They played a schedule to get ready for this week — nine of their 20 games were against nationally-ranked teams.
“We want to win it all,’’ Foster said.
They play like it.
“We have gotten stronger and stronger,’’ said Judith Bast, a sophomore from Germany who played wearing an uncomfortable mask after she was kicked in the face in a game this season. Bast is tough and has a cannon in her foot, and she knows this team is special.
“We’re here because of a lot of work and everyone as an individual stepped up and got better and better, and went beyond their limits,’’ Bast said. “And we grew stronger as a team and grew more confident. We didn’t have the (fieldhouse) before, and we spent a lot of time together this year. We have so many different characters on this team, but we came together and we are a family.’’
Aric Bonner said the fieldhouse helped in a direct way because of the time the team was together watching film to not only prepare for opponents but to upgrade their own game as individuals.
“In the past we would have film study after two or three games,’’ he said. “This year we had film study after every game. At universities they probably spend a little more time on film study, but not at junior colleges. In the past we didn’t have the facility to do it, but it was different with these kids. They spent a lot of time together, and they still like each other.’’
They’re not just close, but talented — talented all over the field with an extra step when they need it. That quicksilver step belongs to freshman Trudi Carter, an electric player who played soccer all her life in Jamaica before finding the pitch in Corsicana. She’s lightning-quick, and can make the ball dance with a style and panache all her own. She leads Navarro in scoring with 21 goals and is a threat to score anytime she has the ball with a sliver of daylight.
But this team wins because of its collective effort, and so many players — Morgan Nutley, Melina Prado, Natalia Torres, Caroline Spurrier, Amanda Olsen, Corina Castillo, Naialani Garcia, Joanna Nigro, Shelby Evans, Erica Pena and others — have all had their moments.
The Bulldogs have allowed just one goal in four playoff games, outscoring four postseason teams 13-1, and both Bonners have talked about the emergence of freshman goalkeeper Kenia Medina this year.
But the beauty of Navarro’s defense is in the beauty of its game — smart, crisp passing that drives opponents crazy and makes fans (even non-soccer fans) appreciate the finesse of the game.
The Lady Bulldogs are simply a joy to watch.
That closeness and bond off the field carries over to the field, where Navarro’s kids instinctively find each other time and time again with no-look passes and passes that seem to have a mind of their own with a group of players who know each other so well that they always seem to know where to be and when to be there. The result is Navarro controls games even when the scoring is scarce.
“We got to know each other early,’’ Riggs said. “We know each other so well. We know how everyone plays and where they want the ball. We know each other’s game.’’
It wasn’t like that in the beginning.
“I was worried,’’ said Riggs, one of four sophomores. “We had like a million freshmen. But we played Lamar, a Division I team, in the preseason and they beat us on a penalty kick. That’s the only way they were going to beat us. That’s how good we were. I was saying: ‘Oh my God! We’ve got a chance to really be good.’ ’’
Then they got better.
Every kid you talk to on this team from Carter to Bast to Riggs right down the roster wants to win it all for Bonner.
Carter said every goal, every push is for Bonner because the coach has touched the kids, and Bast said the coach meant everything to the team. Foster smiled and talked about how much Bonner means to everybody. Riggs couldn’t stop talking about the team’s coach.
“We really want to win it for Coach Bonner. She has really had an effect on us,’’ Riggs said. “She has done so much for us in every aspect. We all feel like we owe to her, to win it all for her.’’
Bonner feels the same way.
“I love being with them,’’ she said. “They are such a great group of kids I would put them out in any community event. Everybody would be proud of them. I’m so proud of them because of the way they are, the way they get along — because of how well they get along.”