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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker

HOW TO BE A WILDCAT by Cassandra Ratkevich

Lessons learned from my local travel soccer team

Team photo of Wildcats.
Within two seasons, the Wildcats went from a losing record to victors in the Essex Fall Tune-Up Tournament in 2015. Coach Danny instilled in the author the lesson to believe in herself. She is pictured wearing a yellow headband and holding the trophy.

Sometimes you must be unconventional; perseverance is crucial in pursuing goals; always believe in yourself.

These three pieces of advice could be quoted from the opening lines of any generic self-help book. And yet, rather than acquiring them through reading a “How to be the best you!” story, these lessons were instilled in me during my years playing with the Cougar Soccer Club.

I began my soccer career as most Maplewood and South Orange kids do – on one of the many co-ed South Mountain soccer teams. This path came to a sudden end when my family packed our belongings and moved halfway across the country to Colorado, following the relocation of my dad’s job. Instead of naturally progressing onto Cougars after South Mountain, I continued my soccer journey with a travel team in Colorado.

But Colorado didn’t take. By the time I hit third grade, we were itching to move back to our house in Maplewood and decided to do so before the next school year. The only issue with this decision was soccer. Tryouts for Cougars were scheduled for before the conclusion of the school year - when my family and I would still be living in Colorado. The solution, crafted by my dad, sounds just as crazy now as it did when he first proposed it: fly across the country for one day to try out for Cougars.

Deciding to lean into the craziness, my dad, sister, and I boarded a flight to Newark a few weeks later. After a cab ride to Maplewood, my sister and I completed our tryouts on Chyzowych Field and then returned to the airport for our flight back to Colorado.

During this initial experience, I learned my first lesson: sometimes you must do unconventional things.

Within a few days, a phone call came bearing the news that I had made the team, but not the one for my age group. Instead, I made the “B” team for those a year older than me.

Moving back to Maplewood and beginning practice with the team quickly sidelined my excitement for playing up. It became clear my team was less skilled than the other, and I was eager to play with kids my own age.

The writer is in the middle with some of her Wildcats teammates.

Although the situation was not ideal for my first year on Cougars, it taught me the second lesson: perseverance, specifically the need to persevere through difficult situations to achieve your goals. Commitment and additional training enabled me to accomplish my goal of making my age group’s team, the Wildcats.

The subsequent two years with the Wildcats introduced me to the most influential figure in my soccer career, our team trainer, Danny. My time training under Danny took me from an average soccer player to someone confident enough to try out for higher-ranked travel clubs.

Within two seasons, the Wildcats went from a losing record to victors in the Essex Fall Tune-Up Tournament – an accomplishment my teammates still talk about years later. Danny instilled in me the third and final lesson: to believe in myself. As a young female athlete, Danny’s encouragement and reassurance were fundamental in becoming the soccer player I am today.

As I grew and began high school, I often leaned on the three core lessons Cougars taught me when faced with adversity, whether academically or on the field.

Cassandra Ratkevich continued her soccer career this year as the captain of both the CHS Girls Varsity Soccer team and her club soccer team Steel United NJ.


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