PRESCOTT - The Waitsburg-Prescott soccer team opened its inaugural season ranked No. 23 of 23 teams in 2B co-ed soccer.
Last week, it closed the season with higher student grades and just short of the state tournament, and a No. 1 ranking and 19-1 record, which no other team can mathematically beat this season.
"We're building a program," said head coach Rick Hamilton. "From the beginning to end, the kids learned a lot, not only out on the field but in the classroom. The kids came a long way and that's the main thing. We watched them mature in the sport and become leaders in the school and the classroom.
"The overall record doesn't matter. It's what they accomplished this year that's important."
Getting the team to this point took about three years, said Prescott athletic director Jack Smiley. Prescott started with a middle school team and decided to expand to the high school last year.
"It's been an ongoing process, trying to develop this," said Smiley. Of the 22 players on the team, 18 were from Prescott, the smaller of the two school districts.
"Our population is increasingly Hispanic, and we've been trying to figure out a way to get those kids involved in activities," he said. "Our numbers have dropped over the years in the teams, and this is a way to get them back involved."
A number of the players were on the bubble academically.
"At playoff time, every player we had was eligible," Smiley said. About 30 percent of the team improved their grades from being on the edge of eligibility since last spring, he said. And he estimated that all of the players on the team improved their grades.
"That was one of the things we sold the program on," Smiley said. "The kids were going to have to be academically eligible. They knew from the get-go that this first year was critical. If they weren't eligible, it wasn't going to be around for long."
Hamilton played a part in that, Smiley said.
He required students to study, sometimes sacrificing practice time.
"I'm an educator first and a coach second," Hamilton, a certified teacher, said. "That's what I need to be and that's what those kids need to see. Once they started to get that, their grades, especially the seniors, started coming up. At the quarter, our team had an average 3.0
GPA, which is quite an accomplishment considering that last year some of those kids had two or three F's.
"That's an accomplishment right there," he continued. "It's not always on the field. It's what's happening in classrooms and school that was really important, and the kids came around."
Hamilton has coached soccer for 31 years, he said. He started the boys and girls programs at Pasco High School.
His experience made him a good fit for the new program, Smiley said.
"His bark is far worse than his bite," Smiley said of the sometimes-gruff coach. "But the kids accepted him early and they have a lot of respect for him. They've identified with him. It's been really good."
For the players, Hamilton and assistant coach Bart Baxter have sparked a fire.
Many of them hadn't previously played school sports, but grew up with soccer.
"Coach Hamilton told us we weren't playing soccer, that we were playing ‘futbol,'" said junior Keven Ortega. They were also aware of his academic pushing.
"He was always on our backs," Ortega said. "He forced us to turn in our work and to give him good grades."
On the field, Hamilton emphasized communication.
"He taught us how to communicate on the field," said Jairo Gonzalez, one of four seniors on the team.
Hamilton's tough approach on and off the field was necessary, he said.
"It's tough love," he said. "You show that you'll be there for the kids. That's important. The kids know when you're genuine and they'll spot a fake quicker than adults will. So when they see that you'll follow through on your standards and morals, the kids understand that. I raised the bar pretty high and I always believe the kids will rise to my expectations."
And with grades and on-field accomplishments, the team did.
Just four seniors leave the W-P team - Gonzalez, Jose Esquivel, Miguel Velazco and Cesar Mungia.
"Losing those four seniors isn't going to hurt us because I've got kids to fill those spots right away," Hamilton said. "We'll come back very strong and it's good for these younger kids to see. We're building a program."
For Ortega, next year is a key.
"We want to make and win state," the junior said. "I also want to be an example to the younger, new players so they step up. I hope we get some pretty good players next year."
That might include more girls. 2B co-ed soccer requires one girl per team, and this year's team had three.
"As this catches on, there will be even more girls," Smiley said. "We want to best kids on the field at any given time and that will include girls."
W-P's Elizabeth Xaudaro led all girls in the state with three goals, 2B/1B Soccer Central, a website devoted to small-school soccer in Washington.
Scouts were on the field throughout the season, especially as W-P's reputation grew.
"They made us nervous," Ortega said. "You give everything and then mess up. It was always hard."
But many of W-P's games weren't a big challenge.
They won by big margins in most of their games, outscoring opponents 115-18 on the season, according to the website. Their only loss was the 2-1 quarterfinals game last Saturday.
"This was a tremendous lift for the school and the kids," Smiley said. "This was great for their self-esteem - they could show off their skills and be recognized. It was a tremendous bunch of kids, and they did a great job for us all year as ambassadors of the school and the community."