By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
MIDLOTHIAN — A team that made history on the pitch in thrilling fashion has been officially immortalized in stone.
Or, granite, rather. Either way, Midlothian Heritage’s unforgettable victory in the 2018 4A state championship will soon intimidate opposing players and greet endearing supporters as they walk into Jaguar Stadium.
Roughly 40 people attended the recently held monument dedication that honored those 25 student-athletes, two coaches and various support staff who helped the Jaguars to a 29-3-1 overall record and an outright undefeated district championship.
“It’s like a homecoming here,” one father joked to another as the crowd clad in masks greeted one another.
There were plenty of “I haven’t seen you in so long” and “They’ve all grown up so much” comments, too. Many of the girls from that magical run are now young women well on their way to post-college and professional careers.
“I graduate in May,” said Kendall Shirley proudly to a few former teammates, “going to be a nurse.”
Shirley suffered a torn ACL before the season but did get to play in the final minute-and-a-half of the Jaguars’ third-round match against Kennedale. Despite the injury, she also signed a letter of intent to continue her career at East Texas Baptist University.
Of course, there were also seven freshmen on that state-champion Jaguar side that have already taken the field for their senior season.
Emilee Page, Hannah Dorsey, Kylar Kenter, Rachel Allen, Jaedyn Barela, Savana Conde and Abby Hackney are all still proudly wearing their Heritage kit in search of a second state title.
Oddly enough, Allen and Kenter provided the three deciding goals in the state semifinal and state championship match. There will be more on that, especially the second match-winner, later in the article.
“I’ve never done one of these before, of any sort,” said Midlothian Heritage head girls’ soccer coach Gerald Slovacek on Monday, Dec. 28, while the five-foot-ish granite monument sat to his left on a crisp afternoon. “Our motto that year in 2018 was ‘Whatever it takes.’ The year before, we got beat by Kennedale in the quarterfinals but we battled and were almost there. That next year, I felt like we really had a chance to win it all with the girls we had.
“I don’t know that a lot of them believed that or how much confidence that they had in that, but I believed it. As the year went on, the girls really started buying into it and realizing the opportunity and that ‘Whatever it takes’ motto really came into effect.”
Slovacek described the team as being unselfish despite its depth. He even noted that several girls who spent most of the season on the junior varsity side contributed significantly to the varsity team’s postseason run. “Everyone played her part,” he added.
“We just played with so much energy,” Slovacek continued. “And that is what it takes to get to that point. It takes a team that buys into each other. Yes, you have to have the talent, but it takes a team.”
That Jaguar side outscored its opposition 125-17 over 33 matches and ended on a 17-match winning streak. The Jaguars were led in goals by Allen (23), Katie Greer and Brittiney Gardner (14). The three also led in assists with 10, 13 and 10, respectively.
Meagan McCarthy recorded 16 clean sheets in goal with 153 total saves to just 13 goals allowed behind a physical defense.
Tori Needels, who helped spearhead that fantastically physical defensive effort, also spoke to the crowd during the ceremony.
“The biggest thing was that, like Slov said, we all got along,” said Needles, who attends the University of Arkansas and was a captain during the 2017-18 season. “We fought like sisters and might’ve roughed each other up on the field a few times, but that’s just how it was, and we all made sacrifices. I know there were plenty of things that we all wanted to do and things that we had to sacrifice for soccer. But, it all shows that when you work hard and put in good effort and try your best to get along, it all works out in the end.
“I can’t tell y’all how much that team has been such a family, regardless if we still talk or not or whatever. I just always know that whatever I do in the end, you are all going to be here for me, and I will always be there for y’all. And, I think that’s just a good thing.”
THE GOAL IN GEORGETOWN
“At the beginning of the season, we weren’t really focused on state, to be honest,” said Makenlee Mabra (4 goals, 4 assists), who was a sophomore captain in 2018. “We kind of joked about it, and it was on our homecoming banner, but it wasn’t really our focus because we had a rival team that we knew that we would have to play early on.”
That team was Kennedale, who the Jaguars had fallen to 2-1 in the third round in 2017. The rivalry had also already carried over from fútbol pitch onto the football field, for what that’s worth.
“Our team got closer throughout each game,” added Kayla Aston (2 goals, 6 assists), a junior on the state championship team. “Each game was definitely a battle, and we just focused on getting through that game before we started to think about the next. The chemistry just got stronger during each game.
“State was just such a far off and distance idea. Midlothian had never seen a team sport make a state championship. So it was just ‘get through this game and get to the next one’ and then ‘get through this game and get to the next one.’ And, seven games later, we found ourselves in a state championship situation.”
The Jaguars reached that state tournament by defeating Lake Worth (6-0), Celina (2-0), Kennedale (3-1), Stephenville (2-1) and Wylie (1-0).
When asked during an airing of “The Press Box” on KBEC 1390AM/99.1 FM on the day of the monument dedication, Aston pointed to the Liberty Hill match in the state semifinal final as being the one from that season that stuck out most in her mind.
In that thrilling win, Grace Hackney scored on an Aston assist in the opening 10 minutes of the first half. Fun fact: Aston, Hackney and Mabra now all live together in College Station.
Liberty Hill eventually responded in the second half.
That’d be it, too, as the teams headed into penalty kicks following an unfruitful second overtime period.
As Aston explained, the Jaguars had not partaken in an overtime penalty-kick situation before then.
“That was pretty nervewracking, especially having the young team that we did,” she added. “It was a lot of pressure resting on some younger players’ shoulders.
Kylar Kenter scored the game-winner during penalty kicks in that match against Liberty Hill. The then-freshman-and-now-senior struck again for the equalizer the following day in the state championship match against Jasper.
“And, once we got through those PKs, state didn’t seem so hard,” Aston added.
Despite the boosted confidence, the Jaguars needed every second on the clock and a little late-match heroics to win the City of Midlothian’s first-ever state championship.
With Heritage trailing at the half, 1-nil, in the 2018 state title match, both captains recalled Slovacek delivering a halftime speech that recentered the group.
“We had to recollect, and coach Slov gave a great speech that ‘we’ve already made it this far, and we can’t quit now,'” Aston said. “And it powered us through to keep going that second half and not give it up.”
Kenter was the first Heritage freshman to score (unassisted) in the state final, which came late in the second half. A second freshman eventually found the twine after a long, unnerving second half and nearly two full overtime frames.
With the match heading toward penalty kicks, Aston took five steps backward and three to her left to mark a starting point before a free kick with 34 seconds left in the second overtime.
As she did so from roughly 20 yards out, Slovacek turned and questioned anyone who could hear him over the raucous Heritage crowd beating on bleachers, blowing various horns and yelling with the intensity of a mild tropical storm, “WHY IS KYLAR NOT TAKING THIS SHOT?!”
In hindsight, his question was valid. It was also, thankfully, drowned out in all but one sideline video that will never be shared publicly unless requested by the head coach.
“Being completely honest, my mind was thinking that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing,” Aston laughed.
The forward explained that, typically, someone else would take free-kicks from 20 yards and in. That teammate would also take a shot on goal.
Aston, who is admittingly was a “bad” shot taker, elected for an alternative — and it worked.
“In the moment, and I don’t know what came over me, I just decided that the best idea was to cross the ball instead of shoot it,” she explained. ” And the biggest thing that I will remember, probably for the rest of my life, is coach Slov screaming ‘why’ am I over there and to go back to defense, which was where I needed to be then.”
Aston’s cross from just outside of the numbers on the 10-yard line found the right foot of a leaping Rachel Allen. The redirection snuck through a contested front and into the bottom-90 for a 2-1 Heritage lead. The freshman’s goal came with 28 seconds to play in the second and final overtime period.
“It was pure shock,” said Mabra of the match-winner. “I don’t think that we were emotionally prepared to score the goal and go up in the game. And I definitely don’t think that we were prepared for Rachel to go down hurt. It also took us a minute to realize that she was hurt because we kind of rushed her and tackled her a little bit.”
Jokingly, Aston said the goal proved that future Jaguars should “stop listening to coach and go rogue, apparently.”
The “advice” was said in jest. Listen to your coaches, Jags.
SET IT IN STONE
“The stars aligned or something aligned because I know that there have been a lot of good coaches here before me,” said Slovacek to the crowd during the monument dedication. “But the Heritage Jaguars of 2018 got it done. It took a little while to get this [monument] here, but it’s going to be here for a long while, and it’s a huge part of the tradition and legacy of the Heritage soccer program. Each one of you here today is also a huge part of that and I thank you.”
The head coach sold himself a little short, though.
Both Mabra and Aston selected Slovacek as their biggest mentor and most influential teacher during the “Stars Banquet,” held annually by Heritage for its seniors.
The two former Jaguars also credit their old head coach to help shape them into the outstanding young women they are today.
“Coach Slov was incredibly impactful to not only my life but every girl on that team,” Aston said. “He made you grow as a person and made you grow to become an adult who would be successful in anything. He also valued our grades above anything. There was going to be a punishment if your grade was below a B or even thinking about becoming a C during the season. He just valued our hard work and becoming leaders.
“[…] Coach Slov was an absolute integral part in us winning that [state championship], even if you take soccer out of the equation. His positivity, mentality and ability to inspire us to work harder than we thought we could and to challenge us is what ultimately pushed us through that last goal.”
As far as the monument is concerned, Aston and Mabra said the now-intimidating granite masterpiece establishes a little permanency to the accomplishments of that 2017-18 Jaguar side.
“It’s a great memory of what happened, and each time that we go to the field, we will be able to look at that and remember everything that happened,” Mabra said. “We will remember that whole journey. I actually have a little sister who is on the varsity this year, so to be able to see that monument constantly is a great reminder of our experience.”
Aston echoed those sentiments.
“And this is not just for us, but for Heritage, coach Slov and everyone else who was involved in our win,” she explained. “There is something that is very, very stable and obvious in that monument. I think that all of the people involved in that — our parents, our fans and everyone who worked toward that — deserves to have that in their life.
“They will always know that at Heritage High School in Midlothian, Texas — no matter where you go — that there is something remembering that you won state.”
All photos by Travis M. Smith/KBEC Sports
Funding for the roughly five-foot granite monument was made possible by Wal-mart, The Koethe family, Jaguar Athletic Booster Club, Dr. Jerry and Saundra Ellis, The Mabra family, The Emil and Angeline Slovacek family and Davy Vestal’s Championship Stone Company.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith