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San Juan Hills lacrosse has strong bond, bright future
Three years ago, San Juan Hills was in danger of losing its girls lacrosse program.
Without a coach willing to lead the program, a parent volunteered so the girls could continue playing.
That parent, Jinkee McFadden, was already employed by the district and is a critical part of the program’s history. Not only did she keep the program alive, her one year of leadership allowed the program’s next mentor, Michael Welter, to gain coaching experience at the junior varsity level.
“There was a chance that we weren’t going to have a season,” senior captain Alyssa Dingwall recalled. “There are only a few players left who stuck through it. It was tough and there was definitely a lot of adversity.”
After a 2-16 season, McFadden decided to step away, leaving the door open for Welter if he chose to continue.
Welter, whose daughter Claire played at San Juan Hills, took the challenge, using positive reinforcement and encouragement as his base. Last season, San Juan Hills turned in its first winning season at 10-9.
While Welter saw some girls leave the program, those who stayed have worked hard and are now building its new foundation.
This season, Welter’s methods have developed confidence. San Juan Hills is 8-1 and didn't suffer its first loss of the season until last week against Laguna Hills, 16-15.
The Stallions aren’t down about the loss. In fact, they’re thankful for being humbled.
“I don’t want to say I’m happy we lost – I’m not – but I feel like if we were getting ahead of ourselves, it definitely grounded us,” senior captain Hannah Minsky said. “We lost by one, which is a huge bummer, but we know we have to stay humble.”
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When Welter took over the program in 2015, the Stallions had never come close to a winning record and had only two total wins the previous two years. Welter, a baseball player through high school and college, had never played lacrosse, let alone coached the sport.
His kids were the reason behind the transition. His son played in his youth but stopped before high school. His daughter wanted to continue at San Juan Hills.
He decided to jump from junior varsity coach to varsity coach before the 2015 season. He and the program had plenty of encouragement from fellow coaches, Dave Elkins at Aliso Niguel and Holly Reilly at St. Margaret’s.
Last year’s team was young, with only two seniors among 12 sophomores and four freshmen. Still, Welter was confident in the athleticism his team possessed.
“They were fantastic athletes,” Welter recalled of the junior varsity team he coached in 2014, which now makes up his varsity team.
The only thing lacking was the girls’ confidence in themselves. Welter aimed to develop his team’s mental toughness, instilling a will that it could compete with anyone.
“Without him, we’d be lost,” goaltender Tristan Goldhammer said. “Having someone to put that confidence within us has really helped us to pick it up.”
Missed passes and shots were met with commands to keep heads up and keep trying. Not particular to handing out reading assignments, Welter had each girl read from the book, “Mindset,” which focuses on mental toughness.
Each girl bought in.
“I feel like every other second he reminds us it’s mental … I think that’s special,” Minsky said. “Even though he’s never played lacrosse, he knows that the right mindset is everything and I think that’s what makes us unique is that we focus on the mind.”
Journey Fishbeck transferred from Capistrano Valley before the 2015 season, but couldn’t help the Stallions for the first month due to CIF transfer rules. That didn’t keep her from helping the team.
Fishbeck, a junior last season helped Welter on the sidelines, offering advice on technical aspects for her less-experienced teammates. She developed a trust among them, which has helped bring chemistry to this year’s squad.
“I think it really pushed us to elevate our game to Journey’s level,” sophomore defender Olivia Fu said. “She pushed us to reach new levels, to work harder, play smarter and better our game.”
Fishbeck became eligible during Sea View League play. By that time, the Stallions felt more and more like they could compete with tougher competition. By season’s end, they had swept both Dana Hills and El Toro en route to a 4-4 Sea View League record.
Welter admitted he can’t do it alone. He has help from volunteer coaches Steve Austin and Mark Gabelsberg. Austin played lacrosse at BYU, while Gabelsbe coaches JV despite his daughter graduating from the program last season.
“I could not do this job without them,” Welter said. “We talk every day about tactical strategies and what is going to be good for the girls.”
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Welter admits he’s a coach by practice and the Stallions’ biggest fan by game time. There isn’t much he can do on the sideline during game time, save for a change in game plan here or there.
“On game day, they know what to do,” Welter said. “At the end of the day, they’re playing and I can’t do any more, so I just want to be a fan.
“They’re such fantastic girls.”
During Monday’s practice, Welter’s passion shines.
He jumps when an attacker is open near net, then groans when an opportunity is missed to get her the ball.
He’s quick with an encouraging comment once play is over, reminding his team that they won’t get it every time, but the opportunity will be there next time.
“When they fail, they let that define them, but it doesn’t,” Welter said. “It means we have to work a little harder on that aspect. They’re slowly getting it and our leaders are buying in. That’s the biggest challenge is getting them to believe they can do this.”
This year’s team believes its strength is the flow between both offense and defense. Everyone jells and works together seamlessly, the product of offseason work and players joining club programs.
“Before, it seemed chaotic, but now we have some big-threat defensive plays that pair really well with our attack,” Dingwall said.
Offense has been a strength – the Stallions have scored in double-digits in every match this season – but Goldhammer lauds the defense and is quick to mention the balance of this year’s team.
“I can be confident in knowing my defenders are going to shift without me saying anything, so we’ve definitely built our communication,” she said.
The team relished its 8-0 start. Though it only has one winning season to its credit, San Juan Hills is thinking big this season. The Stallions want a Sea View League title.
Last Thursday’s loss to Laguna Hills was a learning point. It was the team’s league opener and now puts the Stallions in a position where they need to win to set up a showdown with the Hawks on April 14. Their strong mental toughness has them focused on executing in practice rather than feeling discouraged.
“Our biggest enemy is ourselves because if we get satisfied with these wins, that could put us in a position that is disabling to ourselves,” Goldhammer said. “We need to stay humble and remember where we came from.”
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