By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (April 11, 2017) — If Casey Weil had his way, there would be Honeybees past and present lined up from end line to end line for the playing of the National Anthem before their state semifinal contest Wednesday.
Because it’s 10 years worth of Honeybee blood, sweat and tears, not just one season’s worth, that brought Stephenville to this point, to the pinnacle of high school soccer in Texas.
“When I got back from the regional tournament, I looked at all the team pictures on the wall, and I can still name every single girl,” Weil said. “I wish they could all be there with us (Wednesday) because every one of them played a role in getting us to where we are today.”
Stephenville (23-4) meets Region II-4A champ Athens (15-10-1) in the opening game of the UIL State Tournament Wednesday. Kickoff at Birkelbach Stadium in Georgetown is 11 a.m., with the winner advancing to the state championship at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
Weil was a club coach in the summer of 2007, and Stephenville had never reached a regional tournament. But that August, then athletic director Chad Morris – the same Chad Morris who is currently head football coach at SMU – announced the hiring of Weil as head coach of girls soccer at SHS.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s a grueling history with no magical overnight success story, no shortcuts to greatness and plenty of successes and failures along the decade-long journey.
“I had to grow up a lot as a man and as a coach. I was approaching high school soccer like club soccer and that just doesn’t work,” said Weil, who for the first seven years of his career led a 3A-4A program against 5A competition. “We had combined classes for my first several years, and we got to where we were competitive even at that level. Then they gave us our own class (4A soccer was added to the pre-existing 5A and 6A in 2015) and since then we have competed very well these last few years.”
Stephenville has been among the final 16 teams standing all three years there has been a Class 4A after Weil led the Honeybees to that point twice in 5A. That’s five regional tournament appearances in 10 years for a program that had none prior to Weil taking over.
“We kept working and kept improving but we just couldn’t get over the hump,” said Weil. “Five years ago we changed how we do our offseason soccer program, and I feel like that has paid off big time for us because we are stronger and faster than almost every team we come up against.”
The proverbial hump was conquered last week in North Richland Hills, where the Honeybees finally pulled Kennedale off the mountain and claimed their own Region I-4A championship and spot in the UIL State Tournament.
Even that was grueling. Twice Kennedale star Erika McIntyre fired shots that ricocheted off the cross bar. A Kennedale goal off a second-half corner was disallowed because a Lady Kat was offsides. Honeybee keeper Madison Wyly collided with the goal post while making a save midway through the second half and had to turn the goal over to Alyssa Northcutt, who instantly made two impressive saves herself.
But the Honeybees persevered, and after 80 minutes, the regional championship at Birdville Fine Arts and Athletics Complex remained scoreless. Same after 90 minutes, then after 100. But in penalty kicks to settle the draw, Stephenville shined. Claire Choate, Beatris Chavarria and Brinkley Harlow scored penalties for the Bees, while Northcutt made a save and watched another shot go wide right for a 3-1 lead with McIntyre stepping up for Kennedale.
Northcutt read the hips and eyes, she says, of the left-footed goal-scoring machine, correctly moving to the keeper’s left, falling back to her right and covering the shot on the line to set off a raucous celebration by the Honeybee side.
“These kids just keep believing and keep fighting,” said Weil. “I’m not sure that at the beginning of the year because we were so young that we believed we could come this far, but as the year went on and we grew up playing such a tough schedule, we started to believe and the momentum kept building.”
Stephenville faced perennial power Abilene Wylie as well as Brownwood and Mineral Wells three times each in 3-4A district competition. All four teams won area-round playoff matches and reached the regional quarterfinals.
“Our district was so competitive, and that prepared us for the playoffs,” the coach said. “Then when we got to the playoffs, it was really laid out perfect for us because we started with Burkburnett and then it got gradually tougher every game after that.”
After so many battles, Weil doesn’t see his nine freshmen regulars – seven of them season-long starters – as freshmen anymore.
“At this point, we’ve seen the Abilene Wylies and Kennedales of the world and we’ve made it past that, so no, I don’t think our age or experience is an issue anymore,” he said. “We play a lot of freshmen, but those freshmen have grown up and they are ready for this stage.”
Honeybee soccer, the program not just the 2017 edition, is ready for this stage, too.
“This has always been the dream, but it has been a long time coming. I kept asking myself year after year why can’t we get over that hump, but we stayed in contention every year and we finally got it to all come together. It’s been a great journey.”
For the finishers of that great journey comes a great reward.
“The crowds, the college coaches, the way they put these girls on a pedestal, which at this point they absolutely deserve, everything about the state tournament is just so exciting and special,” said Weil. “I’m just happy and blessed that I get to participate in it all this year and not just watch and wish we were part of it.”
The Honeybees are done wishing, and they’re done wondering how to get over the hump.
The Honeybees are playing for a state title that 10 years ago Weil and company could only dream of, but is now just two wins away.