Jackson ponders: What if?

Like most travelers, Laura Hernandez brought back souvenirs from her recent trip.

Along with the standard items she picked up during her stay in South America was something rather unusual: a bottle of soda with her face on the label.

Hernandez returned to the U.S. last weekend after an extended visit to Colombia, where she became somewhat of a national sports celebrity as a member of the country’s U-17 national women’s soccer team. She was featured in TV commercials, on posters and on plastic bottles of soda produced by team sponsor Pony Malta.

Hernandez, 17, had planned to spend her senior year at Jackson High School, where she played two seasons for the Timberwolves soccer squad. But everything changed in May when she was invited to try out for the team in her native Colombia. Hernandez performed well and was one of 21 players selected for the squad.

In late October, the Colombians traveled to New Zealand for the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. They tied their first two games and lost their third, failing to advance out of group play. Hernandez got on the field in the final game, playing defender the entire second half against New Zealand.

The competition was impressive, she said: “They were really big and fast, really strong. It was a higher level than what I’m used to” in the United States.

At age 10, Hernandez moved to Washington state from Colombia with her mother. Hernandez played soccer one year at Edmonds-Woodway High before transferring to Jackson High, where as a midfielder/forward she twice earned All-Wesco South first-team honors.

Hernandez, who plays for the Redmond-based Crossfire select program, was slated to be a team captain for Jackson this year. But her opportunity with the Colombian team forced her to skip her senior season.

Hernandez returned to Washington last weekend in time to watch Jackson beat Tahoma in the Class 4A state quarterfinals. On Friday the T-wolves (16-1-3) play Woodinville (13-3-1) in the 4A semifinals at Harry Lang Stadium in Lakewood (Pierce County).

Hernandez, who is not eligible to play for Jackson, said she felt nostalgic watching her former teammates last week. Leaving them was a difficult choice.

“I was kind of sad because I really like this group, but I knew that (going to Colombia) was a much bigger opportunity for me,” said Hernandez, who has been taking online classes and expects to graduate in the spring. “It’s every player’s dream to play and go represent your country.”

Jackson has done well without Hernandez. Still, the players can’t help but wonder what might have been.

“All the girls talk about is if we had her,” Jackson head coach Mike Bartley said. “We’re already really good. But what if we had her?”

Jackson’s Simone Sterling, a junior defender and Hernandez’s close friend, said there was plenty of uncertainty when the T-wolves learned Hernandez wasn’t coming back. Sterling said she often wondered, “What are we going to do with our offense without Laura?”

“It was hard,” Sterling added, “but I knew in the end I was happy for her because she’s doing her thing, what she’s always dreamed about.”

With only one senior on its roster — defender Katie Reese — Jackson gradually found players to fill the scoring void left by Hernandez. The prime offensive contributors have been junior Megan Bolmes (10 goals, nine assists), junior Brianna Ellis (12 goals, six assists) and freshman Cara Wegner (13 goals, nine assists). Each girl was named to the all-conference first team.

“It just says that we’re a team and we know how to pull together. I’ve never had a team that is as tight-knit with each other,” said Sterling, one of Jackson’s eight juniors.

This week Hernandez watched a few Jackson practices at Everett Memorial Stadium. It allowed her to reconnect with former coaches and teammates. The presence of Hernandez, who plans to watch Jackson play this weekend, has not been a distraction, Bartley said.

“I thought it might bother them,” Bartley said, “but it doesn’t bother them at all. They look at it as she’s a friend first, and she always will be.”

Writer Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.

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