Taking One for the Team:
The Clemente Wildcats Improve Under Coach Barbara Martin, But the Seniors who Led the Charge Wont be There if the Team Finally Earns Eligibility for the State Playoffs
By Michael Azre
This season, under second year head coach Barbara Martin, the football team at Chicagos Roberto Clemente High posted its first winning record in seven years, finishing at 5-3 and claiming third place in the Chicago Public Leagues Big Shoulders Conference.
This solid performance, which reversed the teams
2-6 finish in 2002, is just one more piece of evidence as to how hard
coach Martin and her staff have worked to improve the quality of the
football program at Clemente and turn it into point of pride for one
of the citys most challenged schools.
Long known as a baseball school, Clemente has been struggling for years to field a team capable of putting together the two winning seasons that will make them eligible for the IHSA Football Playoffs. If Martin and her team can be successful next year, Clemente will be poised to end a playoff drought that has run for almost a decade.
"I dont know what will happen next year," Martin says, referring to the possibility of leading the team to its second straight year over .500.
Martin is hard-nosed, a realist. She has to be, for all the hype that has surrounded her groundbreaking career as the only female football coach in Illinois high school football history, Martin is well aware that her school and the athletes there are at a disadvantage in almost everything but the heart and guts they bring to the field.
Many of the parents in the neighborhood that Clemente serves cant afford to pay the fees for their children to play football before high school and only this year did a Pee-Wee League form at nearby Humbolt Park.
"We just dont have the infrastructure that the suburbs have," Martin explains. "Whereas kids here start playing baseball when theyre three, and their fathers play baseball, and its ingrained in them, football is not. For football, other than when they play pick-up games in the park, the first time when they play organized football is at the high school."
On top of this, next year Martin will be losing a particularly cohesive group of seniors whose strong play and fours years of experience together contributed greatly to this seasons success.
"If you want to win," Martin says, "it helps to have a group of kids whove stayed together and played football. By the time theyre seniors, they know each other, they read each other. They have that three years of experience. They do well, which is what weve seen this year."
Senior standouts on the Wildcats include halfback Sergio Ortiz, lineman Louis Rojas, quarterback Joe Vazquez, and wide receiver Manny Roman. Theyre part of a group of fifteen players that Martin has coached since they first joined Clementes frosh-soph team four seasons ago.
Martin knew she had a special group of players even then. "These seniors when they came in as freshmen were excited," she says. "They came in, lost the first couple of games, but then they just won, won and won. They made the playoffs, got to the semis. And I was excitedthis was a really good group of kids."
With their winning record, what this years group of seniors accomplished is bittersweet: theyve paved part of the way for Clemente to reach they playoffs, but they wont be there, in uniform, to compete, should the Wildcats continue to improve.
Martin, however, is convinced that that what the group has really won is worth more than the privilege of competing beyond the regular season.
"More than any other team sport, with football, theres a bonding," Martin explains. "Theres a bonding with these guys that I dont see with baseball players, that I dont see with basketball players. Football players, for some reason, they bond. I swear, at their twenty year reunion, it will those football players together and they will remember every game that they played and every important, great play that the made. Theyll be together and talking about football."
Martin, meanwhile, expects that continuing these players winning ways will be a challenge for Clemente. But if anyone is up to this challenge, its Martin herself. As the first woman to serve as head coach to a high school team in Illinois, shes proven herself capable of overcoming obstacles and defying expectations. For the nine seasons that she served as Clementes frosh-soph coach, "Miss Martin," as her players sometimes call her, racked up an impressive eight conference titles.
Alreadt she sees hope in the freshman who've joined the program this season. "Classes run in cycles," Martin says. "Ive been teaching long enough to know. "This senior class as a whole was just a good group of kids. They got involved They were decent students. They played sports, joined clubs. But for the last couple of years after them, its been difficult getting kids to just come out and play. On the other hand, this years freshmen groupI keep looking at them and its like, God, I would love to coach them. They were faithful, they came every day for the month July to work on conditioning. Theyre coming to practice, theyre respectful, theyre learning."
Martin expects that some of these players will be called up for varsity next season, just as this years departing seniors were called up early in their sophomore year. History tells her that they might struggle at varsity. But shes unwilling to concede that the rebuilding process will derail the Wildcats from putting together a strong enough team to win next year and finally earn the school eligibility for the playoffs. And this group, unlike the one that cleaned out its lockers at the close of this season, would have the opportunity to play in the playoffs themselves.
"You never know what will happen or who will contribute," Martin says. "This year, I had a young man who came out, signed up in the spring, from Guatemala. His English was so-so. Who in Guatemala plays football? But he's is absolutely incredible. I want to go down and recruit in Guatemala. Everything weve asked of him, hes done. Hes learned the game well. You just dont know: maybe some kid is going to say, Yeah, I want to go out for football, and hes going to make a really big difference for your team. So youre always optimistic. Am I going to miss these seniors? Of course, I am. But well do OK."
Win or loose, its the football program itself thats really Martins first prioritynot because of the game itself, but because of how it plays a role in strengthening the community and helping kids stay on track.
"What is true," Martin says, "is that sports do keep some of these kids in school. Its not like in the suburbs. For about a year, it was real quiet around here. But this summer it just went crazy. And the boys tell me theres so much shooting going on. They could be the ones on the corner instead of here. Footballor any sportkeeps them here in school and out of trouble. It works."