ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At Atrisco Heritage Academy, Jessica Villalobos calls the shots on the boys soccer team. You don’t like it?
Then do a lap.
Daniel Sanchez offers a word of caution to anyone thinking of pushing Jessica Villalobos’ buttons.
Gesturing in the direction of the petite 29-year-old during a recent boys soccer practice at Atrisco Heritage Academy, Sanchez says getting on Villalobos’ bad side translates into running.
“A lot of running,” he says. “Especially if she hears you say a bad word. You swear and you’ll run a lot for sure.”
Along with the entire AHA program, Villalobos has made the transition from the junior varsity level to varsity this school season. Doing so makes her the only female head coach of a boys’ varsity sport in all of Albuquerque Public Schools.
Women serving as a boys coach isn’t unheard of. Ann Cernicek had a decorated career as the boys soccer coach at Los Alamos earlier this decade while Josie Francis led Santa Teresa to the small-school boys soccer state title in 2000.
The last thing Villalobos sees herself as is a trail blazer.
“I don’t think being in this position is odd at all,” she says. “I’ve been around as a coach long enough that I know I should be where I am. Being a woman doesn’t make a difference at all, I think.”
Villalobos played soccer in high school at Santa Teresa but never played in college. She eventually became an assistant at her alma mater and later took a job coaching boys and girls at APS’ Ernie Pyle Middle School.
From there she moved to the boys’ program at AHA when that school opened. Back then, the school’s South Valley campus was still under construction and the team’s practice field was a patch of grass outside Milne Stadium.
The Jaguars spent two full years playing at the sub-varsity level. This year — sans a senior class — they make the jump to Class 4A in their first varsity campaign.
“When I first got here I had to start with the basics,” Villalobos says. “Fundamentals and drills is where we had to start. We’re still teaching those things now, but at least it’s getting easier.”
From Day One, Villalobos has commanded the players’ respect by enforcing the kind of discipline she preaches to her students as an advanced-placement Spanish teacher.
Her no-nonsense approach makes it easy to get the players’ attention.
Her gender clearly doesn’t matter to her, either.
“Some people are probably surprised to see a girl coaching boys, but they shouldn’t be,” says junior forward Aldo Ornelas. “She’s held this team in check and, for me, she has my respect.”
At a recent practice the difference between a Villalobos workout and that of a girls’ team is spelled out in bright, bold letters. At one end of AHA’s on-campus soccer pitch is the girls team. At the other are the boys.
The girls’ workout is halted midway through for a morale-building exercise where players are encouraged to grab teammates’ practice jerseys that are tucked into the waist bands of other players’ shorts. Their laughter and squeals easily resonate on the boys’ end of the field.
Not a single player looks up as Villalobos silently watches her players go through military style leg lifts. The only sounds are the players’ rhythmic breathing and the uniform patting sound of their cleats hitting the grass.
“I would describe myself as a disciplinarian,” Villalobos says. “That’s the way I learned and I believe it’s the best way to teach my players.”
On game days she requires players to attend class wearing button-down shirts with ties. No one is allowed to speak out during practice and every player is strict orders to respond with a “Yes, Coach,” or “No, Coach,” when being instructed.
The concept paid dividends last year as the Jaguars went 14-1-1 at the JV level. Not bad, considering most of her players don’t have the benefit of playing at the club level during the offseason.
Some, like Ornelas, were part of a club side that traveled to Chicago this summer.
He says that kind of experience helps — but not as much as having a coach who knows the game backwards and forwards.
“She knows what she’s doing,” Ornelas says. “She’s a better coach than any man I’ve had before.”