Four years in, the team that plays under the Oak Grove Classical Academy banner is enjoying its finest soccer season. Even with a pair of losses this week to Bosque School and Santa Fe Prep, the Owls (11-3) are easily at their most competitive level since playing their first game in 2018.
That is the straightforward description, which oversimplifies their dynamic. There is also a more complex one for a program that literally defines what it is to be a hybrid.
This particular “boys” team holds a unique distinction in New Mexico: It is not only a co-op team, with three players from Menaul on this roster, but it is also co-ed, with four girls in uniform. And it also features the leading goal scorer in the state.
It makes for an interesting blend, to say the least.
“I don’t want (the season) to end,” coach Miles Shiver said.
Oak Grove’s campus is tiny. The 77 students (grades 9-12) take classes in portable buildings behind Hoffmantown Church in the Northeast Heights. There are only seven seniors in the current graduating class, which is more than double the size of last spring’s graduating class. Three of the seven play soccer, including Hanna Giardetti, a forward who is injured and has been playing on the boys team since her freshman season.
“The boys, they’ve all been very accepting, very kind,” she said. “When this team started, I was in ninth grade, and we only had 11, and I was the only girl. So that was obviously a little rough.
“I know that girls and boys soccer is very different. Sometimes, it feels like it’s a whole different game. But playing with the boys has made me a lot better.”
The complexities of juggling these moving parts, Shiver said, have far more to do with sharing athletes from Menaul than incorporating multiple girls onto the team.
“The different genders,” he said, “aren’t as difficult as the different schools. They don’t have the relationships off the field that they would have if they were at Oak Grove.”
The three Menaul players are from the U.S., France and Germany.
Junior center midfielder Cesar Erives from Menaul is in his second season with the Owls. He told a funny anecdote of going to school on Thursday morning wearing a red Menaul polo shirt as part of the dress uniform, with a tiny sliver of the neck of his grey T-shirt visible underneath.
The T-shirt has the Oak Grove logo.
“That’s definitely weird,” he said with a smile.
He and his Panther classmates have been faced with the tricky task of integrating their personalities, and their games, with the base Oak Grove group that they don’t see until they arrive from Menaul in the afternoon for practices or games.
“You carry some pride for your own school,” Erives said. “Even if you are playing for Oak Grove.”
Oak Grove is ranked No. 5 in the Class 1A-3A boys soccer classification by MaxPreps.com. The Owls’ losses this week came to No. 4 Bosque School (5-1 on Tuesday) and then 5-2 to visiting Santa Fe Prep, ranked No. 2, on Thursday.
“We’re probably in an underdog position,” said Oak Grove senior forward Ben Sowers, whose 50 goals lead New Mexico across all three soccer-playing classes. “We have, I think, an uphill battle to make state, especially considering our district is easily the most challenging.”
Technically, Evangel Christian is part of this three-school co-op in boys soccer, although there are no players from Evangel on this fall’s team.
And there aren’t anywhere near enough girls at Oak Grove for the Owls to branch off, so to speak, on their own yet.
“I’ve never felt like I wasn’t welcome here,” said freshman defender Rachel Smith, who frequently starts for Oak Grove. “Which is a good thing. Coach (Shiver), he sees us as soccer players. Whoever works the hardest will play.”
Both genders are cognizant of the potential complications in mixing genders on the pitch as it relates to the physicality of the sport.
“I wouldn’t say I take it easy,” Sowers said, “but you have to be a little bit more mindful.”
This feeds into Shiver’s stated philosophy.
“The guys really look out for the girls,” he said. “That’s something I’ve fostered very intentionally.”
Oak Grove’s district includes Bosque and defending state champion Sandia Prep, two programs the Owls are certainly not yet ready to topple. But, they say they’re inching closer. And they are hoping to earn a state tournament berth late this month.
“We’re definitely moving in that direction,” Shiver said. “This year has been the biggest jump.”