Apollo's mission: Coach, players reunited for title match

Apollo's mission: Coach, players reunited for title match


Apollo's mission: Coach, players reunited for title match


Mike Varela thought he would be in Afghanistan this weekend. He can’t tell you why he won’t be.

“I’m not allowed to talk about it,” he said.

Whatever the reason, it’s irrelevant to Glendale Apollo’s girls soccer team. All the Hawks know, all they care about, is that they’re playing for the Division II state championship on Saturday, and their coach will be there.

“Something was always missing,” said freshman Daniela Fonseca, who scored both goals in Apollo’s 2-0 semifinal victory over Sahuarita on Wednesday. “Now he’s back.”

Varela, who played at Apollo and has been the team’s coach since the start of the 2009-2010 season, is a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve. In August while on his once-a-month weekend training, he was told his battalion — a military intelligence unit — would be heading to Afghanistan.

Varela is familiar with that part of the world, having served two tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. His job: Mitigate the threats to Americans on the ground in Afghanistan.

“People who work with Afghanistan forces are attacking the American forces who are helping them,” Varela said. “They call it green-on-blue attacks.”

Although Varela’s sense of duty is strong, the timing of the call couldn’t have been much worse. He was gearing up for the soccer season, and he had recently gotten engaged to Fonseca’s older sister.

“I had to call home and let my fiancé know,” he said.

He was less concerned about the impact his absence would have on the soccer team. Apollo has been a strong program under Varela — it went 40-8-1 the past three seasons — and he knew his assistant, Amanda Wright, could handle the job while he was gone.

“My goal the entire time was for these girls to go off and win it (the state title) without me,” he said. “I don’t think we skipped a beat as far as me leaving and her coming in.”

Varela was able to watch Apollo’s first three games before heading to Texas for training. But he was still the coach in absentia; he and Wright would exchange text messages and brainstorm strategy when they talked.

The team, meanwhile, had its own idea of how to honor Varela: Reach the state championship game. Apollo had been eliminated in the quarterfinals each of the last three seasons. The freshmen that Varela began coaching were now seniors, and this season was their final opportunity to play in the game they had dreamed about for years.

On Wednesday, the mission was accomplished.

“We’ve talked about it since Day 1,” Wright said. “They’ve used him as their fuel the entire time.”

Varela, who returned to the Valley on Tuesday, wasn’t sure he should just pick up where he left off. The girls had become accustomed to Wright’s voice and her coaching. But Wright insisted he join her on the sideline.

“She wanted to establish the idea of family and she said it was important for them for me to be there,” Varela said.

It didn’t take long for Varela to get back in the coaching routine. He and Wright both offered encouragement and instruction. When Apollo rested in front of the south net at halftime, it was Varela who gave the pep talk, his voice clearly heard 50 yards away.

When Fonseca’s second goal all but assured Apollo’s victory, Varela jumped up and down in celebration. And when the game ended, he found Fonseca near the midfield stripe and the coach and player, as well as the future brother and sister, shared a long embrace.

“He’s always been our coach and we wanted to do this for him just in case he couldn’t be here,” Fonseca said.

When they separated, a single tear rolled down Varela’s left eye.

“This means everything,” he said. “Everything.”

Reach Bordow at scott.bordow@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow.


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