Many tears were shed by high school athletes who were unable to complete their spring sports schedules in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was particularly devastating for members of the Stephenville High School girls soccer team.
Not only were they as close as sisters in many ways — with many of them having played together on various teams since age 6 or 7 — they also appeared to have a great shot at a historic accomplishment.
Coach Casey Weil’s still-reigning 2019 state champion Honeybees missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance — to win three Class 4A state championships within a span of four years. No team in the history of Texas high school girls soccer, in any classification, had ever won three titles in four years.
When the word came that the remainder of the season would be canceled, the Bees almost could not believe that their 18-1-1 2020 season ended in heartache and disbelief — even before district play could be completed.
But for three of the 13 super seniors on the 2020 squad, this won’t be the end of their soccer adventures. Gracie Bales, Daisy Richards and Ciara Johnston have made the decision to continue playing at the collegiate level.
Richards will be playing soccer for Sul Ross State University in Alpine, while both Johnston and Bales will now become rivals of Richards, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. Sul Ross and HSU are both members of the American Southwest Conference, which is at the NCAA Division III level and does not offer athletic scholarships.
HSU is the only women’s college soccer program in Texas ever to have won a national championship. The Cowgirls captured the 2010 national title, and have won 17 consecutive ASC championships.
Weil, who was named as the 2019 girls soccer Coach of the Year by the Texas Association of Soccer Coaches, admitted more than once that he cried like a baby after realizing the Bees would not be able to prove on the field what many observers felt — that they were talented enough to once again win the state championship.
"I would just like to say that this is one of the hardest things that I have ever been through in my life," Weil stated in an email when asked by the E-T to comment on how the season ended. "These seniors have earned the right to defend their State Championship.
"I know that this is a ‘football town,’ but I believe that this is the best team that has ever come through Stephenville High School. I am so sorry to the seniors that had to go through this.
"All that I can hang my hat on is that this group is the best that they could be. We won two state championships. That is more than many schools, coaches and players could ever dream about. We were going to win another one. I believe that in my heart. We were ready at the right time.
"I just want to thank all of my players because they bought into the system. They have left a legacy for not only Honeybee Soccer, but a legacy for Honeybee Athletics. These girls are destined for greatness, just like they were destined in life. I love my seniors and I love my players. We are great."
"I cried when I heard about it, that we weren’t going to go back," said Richards, noting that she was thinking, "There’s no way they can just take that from us. For three days, pretty much all of us just sat there in shock, in disbelief."
Richards said she almost reacted to the disappointment by dying her hair bright blue — but decided against it.
"Nothing else made sense," she said, describing feeling helpless, and adding, "Not having the opportunity was just devastating."
She said that in a group chat she told her teammates, "I love y’all so much. This isn’t fair."
In reference to the Bees being eliminated in the 2018 playoffs by Midlothian Heritage, one year after the current seniors won the first state title as freshmen in 2017, Richards said, "We could get over that."
As Weil and many of her teammates believed, Richards said with conviction, "We could have done it again."
Richards wants to major in forestry and wildlife management.
She said this will be the fifth year for the women’s soccer program at Sul Ross. She plans to move to Alpine on Aug. 7.
"Soccer has been a grounding point for me," Richards said of wanting to continue playing. "Why not do something you love as much as you can?"
Richards also lettered in cross country at SHS, her sophomore and junior years. She played on the varsity soccer team since moving up to the varsity in time for the area playoff game her freshman year.
Johnston racked up many lofty accolades as a four-year starter. She was the leading scorer for the Honeybees, and was a first-team all-state performer. She was voted Most Valuable Player at the 2019 state tournament in Georgetown when the Bees earned their second state crown in three years.
Johnston said she had no words when she learned their 2020 season was over. She said she gathered with teammates in the parking lot of the soccer field, and they cried together.
"I was at a loss of words — so sad," Johnston said. "We have been playing together since I was 7. It was super, super sad for all of us."
Richards said she is going to major in psychology at HSU. She most likely will play forward for the Cowgirls.
"I’ve been playing since I was little," Johnston said. "It’s like my passion. It helps me cope. It’s who I am. It’s just me. It’s still meaningful because I have an opportunity to continue doing what I do."
"It really did break my heart. It was really important to me," said Bales, a four-year starter who earned second-team all-state as a senior. "At the beginning, it was really hard to talk about.
"I didn’t get the closure. It was really hard not being able to finish that, with the girls I played with my entire life. It was like one big family. It was exciting to go to school every day. I was so blessed to be coached by (the coaching staff)."
Having a chance to continue playing soccer in college is also important to her.
"I knew my freshman year I wasn’t going to be ready to walk away, even after four years," she said.
Bales said she also had a loftier goal for her Honeybees — to bring not only soccer, but also girls athletics in general, more into the community spotlight.
"Our goal was trying to change the atmosphere in Stephenville — to shed light on the girls athletic department."
Bales committed verbally to HSU during her sophomore year at SHS. She intends to earn a master’s degree in business, and wants to become a college soccer coach.
Note: Photos courtesy of Vasara Photography.