Participating in team sports can be valuable for young people beyond providing an opportunity to play a game they enjoy. In the Game, a documentary by Maria Finitzo, follows a group of young Latinas from Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood through four years of their lives. The documentary sees them from their final games as members of the women’s soccer team at Kelly High School and into the early stages of their adulthood, where they’re greeted with challenges rougher than any they’d receive on the field.
Along the way, their coach, Stan Mietus, shapes the young women’s lives. He does his best to equip them on and off the field. These lessons became extremely necessary throughout those difficult times. And from the inability to secure scholarships to family difficulties, these former soccer players faced plenty of obstacles. However, what soccer taught them remained important to them years after they graduated, and they revisited these lessons in one way or another. It’s a gripping tale of a group of young women fighting to make it, but it’s these five lessons that make their journey that much more compelling.
The documentary will air on the World Channel for a week beginning September 27 at 8 p.m. as part of the America ReFramed series. It will then stream for free on PBS.
Photos by: Shuling Yong.
The value of a support system
During their time at Kelly High School, the soccer team provided a second family for the young women. That bond lasted beyond graduation. Former captain Elizabeth Moreno cheers on the team from the stands and hopes to one day sponsor the team so that it can have more resources. After being eliminated from the playoffs, one of the outgoing seniors, says that soccer is where she made most of her friends in high school. Having a support system isn’t just useful for young adults, either. The most touching example of Kelly’s soccer family came when Coach Stan Mietus and his wife suffered a personal tragedy. His former players threw a party to help pick him up, and you could see in his face what it meant to him. “The kids what they don’t realize, they keep me going,” he said. “Sometimes they want to give the credit to me but it’s thanks to them I keep on doing what I’m doing.”
You’re going to have to work harder
The largely Latino high school is one of the biggest in Chicago, and it got hit with some of the harshest budget cuts. This forced the principal to retire, dozens of jobs to be cut, and even led to students being required to bring in their own toilet paper. Kelly students learned through the budget cuts at their school that the system isn’t necessarily set up in their favor. Before those budget cuts even hit, the soccer team was reduced to training in the gym or hallways because the school lacked a proper field. They learned early on that in order to make their dreams come true, Kelly students had to work harder than others.
That difficulty is apparent again for the undocumented students trying to pursue higher education. The good news is that DACA has afforded protections for students like Maria Garcia-Jimenez, one of the team’s former captains who’s been in the United States since she was a year old. The bad news is that financial aid can still be hard to come by. Undocumented students are not eligible for federal student aid, though there is the possibility of obtaining aid from states, colleges, or even private scholarships like the one Garcia-Jimenez received for $3,000. It’s harder, but it’s not impossible.
Sometimes things won’t work out despite your best effort, but don’t give up
It can be a hard lesson for young people to learn, but sometimes in life, you’re going to try your hardest and still come up short. When Kelly High went up against a team of better players who had access to better resources, even Kelly’s best efforts couldn’t keep the game close. But even when delivering that blunt message, coach Mietus made sure the players learned not to ever quit.
Moreno, who stopped taking classes in junior college after her family’s home burned down, showed that resilience by getting herself back on track toward her associate’s degree before continuing her education at Northeastern Illinois University.
The importance of responsibility, work ethic, and leadership
The documentary kicks off with Moreno getting up at 4:30 a.m. to pick up her teammates for practice. As a captain, she took her role as a leader seriously, and her coach saw in her the potential to positively influence her teammates. “I see her as a person that will influence young ladies to make something of themselves, not to settle for second best,” Mietus said. According to Moreno she wasn’t always that way. “[Soccer] taught me a lot of responsibility,” she said. “I get there, I’m prepared. My work ethic, it changed completely. It was not like, ‘Oh here this is a job, it’s done.’ You have to go beyond what you can do.”
Several times throughout the film, Mietus makes it a point to let the young women know that their education should always come first. That isn’t just in terms of of putting education before boys and babies, but also before soccer. “I was never a bad student, but I slipped up in high school,” said Alicia Herrera. “I wasn’t motivated and once soccer started that’s when coach pressured me, he said, ‘If you don’t get your grades up you’re not going to play.'” She turned it around and eventually received a leadership award from Mietus. The prioritizing of education is something that seemed to always stick in the minds of the former students, as they continue to try to pursue educations even though money and family circumstances may make it difficult. A GoFundme for Moreno, Herrera, and Garcia-Jimenez from 2015 raised more than $2,500, and the three provided updates that show they continue to strive toward their dreams.