Emily Cervantes of the Catholic Memorial is an artist with a soccer ball

By Marc Feldman, Special for Sentinel Journal

Some call it special. Others say she could, ultimately, be the best female soccer player Wisconsin has ever developed. Catholic Memorial women’s soccer coach John Burke simply calls sophomore forward Emily Cervantes an artist.

“Emily has the creativity and imagination that we often see in South American and Spanish players, but rarely in the United States,” Burke said. “We need to develop more artists like Emily by encouraging coaches to put aside patterns and shifters and allow these kids to express themselves from an early age.

“That has been the secret to Emily’s development and success.”

And the success hasn’t stopped since she hit her first ball in high school.

Cervantes recently completed an impressive sophomore high school season. She scored 66 goals – the second most in state girl history – had 20 assists, helped her team win a third straight state championship, was named a national All-American, Gatorade State Player of the Year, Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association Player of the Year for the second straight season, and Classic 8 Conference Player of the Year.

For her sensational 2014 season, Cervantes is the Journal Sentinel’s Player of the Year.

But despite all the accolades and acclaim, Cervantes calls herself just a football player. This season, she played after straining an abdominal muscle. She performed after having strep throat. She played despite heavy pressure from defenders determined to stop her every game.

“I tried to mentally prepare myself for every game knowing it was coming. I used that to motivate myself and tried to work harder,” she said. “I played. I never even thought about not playing. I’m a football player and I want to play football.”

This season, Cervantes has grown even more accustomed to being the Crusaders’ biggest attacking threat. She joined compatriot Jo Rolli to wreak havoc on opposing defenders. The Crusaders have scored 146 goals in 28 games.

“I really feel like I’ve changed from last year,” Cervantes said. “I think the team we had really worked to put pressure on the defences. There’s definitely a confidence that comes from playing like that.”

Cervantes has been confident on the pitch since joining the team. In his first two seasons in high school, Cervantes scored 116 goals, already the fourth-most in state history, and had 27 assists for 259 points. For good measure, she also helped Memorial win two state titles.

“Going state and winning the state has been a great experience. The team works so well together and we support each other so much,” she said. “Success makes it fun to come to practice and games.”

Cervantes has his sights set on the state’s career-high 224 goals scored by Ozaukee’s Ashley Bares.

“I’ve heard people say this record is unbreakable,” she said. “I would like to break it.”

Bares also holds the single-season record of 72 goals, set in 2005. Cervantes may also be keen to break that record.

“I guess I’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I don’t focus on the number of goals I score. I focus on the number of games we win.”

Shooting for such a record can be tricky; this usually means the high-flying goalscorer is still in the game long after the outcome has been decided. Such training decisions usually raise eyebrows and fair play questions.

“Unbalanced games aren’t good for anyone,” said Eric Liebergen, who coached Bares at Ozaukee when she scored all of her goals. “The losing team is frustrated and embarrassed. The winning team may become sloppy, arrogant or fall into not taking the game seriously either.

“Cervantes and Bares are compared to each other in the way they attack the goal and the number of goals they score.”

But Cervantes, like Bares, is such a competitor that she never wants to stop.

“I hate getting out of the game,” Cervantes said. “I prefer to stay and play.”

Cervantes surprised some observers this season by deciding to play college football at the University of Tennessee. She visited the Knoxville campus twice and fell in love with the school and the team.

“I know it’s soon to make that kind of decision, but I’m comfortable with it,” she said. “In a way, it’s a relief to have done it. There’s a lot of pressure when you play for college coaches. Now I can just play football.”

During the offseason, Cervantes plans to work on his finishing and his free kicks. “I think my finish is good, but I want it to be better,” she said. “On free-kicks, I want to make sure that every time I take one, it’s a shot on goal.”

She also wants to add a leader to the things others use to describe her.

“A person who always brings a positive attitude to the pitch all the time even if you’re one goal behind,” she said. “A leader is the kind of person who never stops encouraging you to work hard, play hard and give your best.”

Coach of the Year:David Zindler, Waukesha West. Zindler led the Wolverines to a 22-5 record, a third Classic 8 Conference championship in the last four seasons, an eighth consecutive trip to the WIAA State Tournament in 2014 and a berth in a championship game for the fourth time in six seasons.