“I've been in a couple schools and this one just seems more united,” said Chirica, a soccer player herself.
Both the boys' and girls' team are in their second season. The desire for a soccer program had been in the community for a while, so when the program was approved, people were there to support them.
The region does not have enough referees to attend every game, so boys and girls do not play during the same season. The girls' team, which plays in the fall, was first to play on their new home field.
That team has grown from 18 players in 2015 to 27 players this year. Most of the team is Hispanic and a few speak only Spanish.
Coach Chirica doesn't see this communication difference as a barrier at all. A few girls on the team are bilingual and translate during practices and games. Some of the girls see this as an advantage against opponents who don't speak Spanish. They use Spanish to call out the jersey numbers of opposing players to watch out for and to cheer each other on.
Over half of the girls on the team are bilingual and translate for the girls who only speak Spanish.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education, in the 2014-2015 school year over 11 percent of Unicoi High’s 780 students are Hispanic. This is a high number of students compared to the 2 percent of 578 students enrolled at Happy Valley High School in neighboring Carter County.
Not only is the Unicoi High team diverse culturally, but also experience-wise. Some girls have played before, while others have never played the sport.
"I've made new friendships and that's what I care the most about in all sports that I do."
–Daniella Martinez, co-captain
Daniela Martinez is among the newcomers to soccer. She also participates in track and field at Unicoi High. When the soccer program was announced, she saw it as an opportunity to try something new.
"I've made new friendships and that's what I care the most about in all sports that I do," said Martinez.
Not only has she gotten closer to girls on her own team, but she became friends with girls on teams from different schools.
The soccer team, while new, is learning quickly. The team practices every day and plays two games a week, sometimes three, which keeps the girls busy.
Andra Reynoso is the other team captain and goalkeeper. Reynoso used to play volleyball but the commitment started to interfere with church, and she didn't want to quit sports. When soccer was an option, she joined the team.
While balancing school, soccer practice and other responsibilities is difficult, Reynoso says the experience is worth it.
"I think it's helped me grow as a person and helped me become more responsible because Bettina's always pushing us," said Reynoso.
According to the Women's Sports Foundation, high school girls participating in sports are more likely to get better grades and are more likely to graduate. The foundation's research also found that women and girls who participate in sports have higher levels of self-esteem and a more positive body image than girls who do not participate in sports.
The soccer program began last year after senior Unicoi High student Samuel Murillo attended a school board meeting at the end of his sophomore year, and asked the board about starting a soccer team. Having played all his life, Murillo wanted to continue playing soccer, but for his school. Murillo knew students in the area who had started petitions to establish a soccer team, but nothing so far had worked.
At the end of the board meeting Murillo stood up and asked what students could do to get a soccer program. The board, and especially newly elected Director of Schools John English, were supportive. Everything fell into place from there. According to Murillo, Science Hill High School in Johnson City donated goal posts for the field, and the Unicoi County Health Department donated the team’s scoreboard.
The boys had a winning season. They beat Elizabethton High, a team that was undefeated until Unicoi High played them and won. According to Murillo, most of the boys on the team have played soccer before, unlike the girls.
As he finishes his senior year, Murillo would like to suggest having a soccer team for the middle school. He wants students to reach the high school level knowing the basics of soccer.
Top left: Coach Chirica talks to the girls at halftime. Middle Right: Two players touch hands while subbing in. Bottom center: girls sit on sidelines, waiting to play. (Photos: Hannah Swayze)