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BRIAN WHITEHEAD, STAFF
Garden Grove High soccer players Kassandra Herrera, top, and Giselle Betancourt are seniors, team captains, returning all-league midfielders and cousins who've played together since youth.

Garden Grove's soccer 'sisters' form a dynamic duo

STAFF WRITER

Only two girls on the pitch know what the hand gestures, head nods and looks mean.

Garden Grove cousins Kassandra Herrera and Giselle Betancourt are more than a decade into their soccer careers, and since beginning their journey as 4-year-olds, they’ve remained teammates every step of the way. Their synergy cannot be bought. Their intuition borders on frightening.

Herrera and Betancourt often communicate without saying a word.

They do that plenty during games, when others require leadership and direction. But the most meaningful expressions occur before the whistle.

“We both play for the same purpose,” Betancourt said. “We both play for our grandpa.”

Herrera’s mother and Betancourt’s mother are sisters, and more than two years ago, their father died in a car accident.

Herrera and Betancourt remember their grandfather loving soccer, coaching Betancourt’s father and other adults in local recreational leagues. The accident happened in September of their sophomore year, just before the start of soccer season. They shared the grief, and began praying together before games.

“We’d look at each other after wins,” Herrera began.

“And we’d know who they were for,” Betancourt finished.

The girls played soccer recreationally when they first started; Herrera, a goalie, Betancourt, a midfielder. Tough to believe now, but at one point they towered over their peers.

They were playing club in no time, for a team based in Anaheim. Companionship made the schedule easier: the travel, the practices, the pressure. Both girls said they ate, slept and breathed soccer. Herrera grew tired of the inactivity and eventually moved out of goal, joining her cousin in the field.

They began living together in sixth grade, and their kinship evolved into something more.

“We didn’t have to say anything to each other on the field,” Betancourt said. “We could look at each other and know where to go.”

Though Herrera stopped playing club soccer before high school, she and Betancourt arrived at Garden Grove as a package deal of sorts, giving then-first-year Argonauts coach Rebekah Norton her midfield of the future.

Norton promoted her two newcomers to varsity, and said their confidence and knowledge of the game compensated for their lack of high school experience. Not many freshmen come ready to go, Norton said. “They took people on.”

Herrera remembers being a bit intimidated by her peers that first year. Betancourt called it “scary” at times playing with and against letter winners three or four years her senior. But both girls started immediately, and Garden Grove began its ascent.

“They’ve always been leaders; the first at practice and last-to-leave type,” said Norton, who missed the playoffs in her first year as coach, but qualified for and won a game in her second. “They take ownership, and work the hardest of anyone, at any drill. ... Their leadership helped catapult us to where we are now.”

Herrera, Betancourt and Norton have the rapport required of midfielders and coaches.

The girls see things others don’t, Norton said, and if it’s not Herrera setting up a teammate in the attacking third, it’s Betancourt. No movement of theirs is wasted, and their passion comes through in how aggressively they play. Herrera would love to be as sure of herself as her cousin, and Betancourt can’t fathom having Herrera’s motor.

Norton grants both girls the freedom to create for others, trusting them to make decisions when there’s little room for error. Herrera and Betancourt are extensions of Norton, and the standards they’ve set these past three-plus years will transcend classes.

“They embody everything a student-athlete stands for,” Norton said. “Ask kids around campus, and they know Kassandra and Giselle. I can’t imagine them not being here. I’ve coached here for four years, so it’s like my cycle with them is ending as well.”

Garden Grove lost to eventual champion Grace Brethren, 8-1, in last year’s CIF-SS Division 7 semifinals, the program’s furthest postseason run.

Herrera and Betancourt received first-team All-Garden Grove League laurels, and Betancourt was voted All-CIF. They are two of 15 returning letter winners, and team captains. Betancourt is playing with a partially torn ACL, which she suffered her freshman year. She’ll have surgery after the season, but will play through the pain in this final year with her soccer sister.

Contact the writer: 714-704-3790 or bwhitehead@ocregister.com


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