Picture a typical high school kicker. Quiet, reserved, probably more of a soccer player than a football player. That’s the case at Hobbton. But one thing about the Wildcats’ kicker does stand out: she’s a girl.
Jovanna Zapata is a star player for Hobbton’s girls soccer team. She’s not a spectacular athlete, but her technical skills are very strong. It shouldn’t come as a surprise since she’s been playing as long as she can remember. Hobbton soccer head coach Jonathon Jacobs said Jovanna has an outstanding work ethic.
“She’s a good girl, doesn’t say much, but she always comes to practice ready to work hard,” Jacobs said. “She’s probably our best player skill-wise.”
Jovanna’s not a talker, but she’s as polite as they come. She doesn’t speak much unless she’s spoken to, and it’s almost always preceded with a “yes, sir” or a “no, ma’am.” She certainly isn’t the type of person to do something just to gain attention. She’s kicking because she wants to, and because someone told her she could.
It was Tuesday, March 20. Hobbton’s girls soccer team was playing host to Princeton, the eventual runners-up in the Carolina Conference. The Wildcats played a close game but lost to the Bulldogs 4-3. In spite of the loss, Jovanna scored a pair of goals. Her play stood out to everyone, especially Princeton’s senior midfielder, Allie Britt, who kicked for Princeton’s football team earlier in the fall. After the game, Allie walked up to Jovanna with a suggestion.
“I told her she should try kicking for football,” Allie said. “We had played against each other the last couple of years, and I always noticed she could kick really hard. I told her it was one of the best decisions of my life. There were lots of ups and downs, but in the end I felt like part of a family. Running out on the field under the Friday night lights, a lot of girls can’t experience that.”
That pitch struck a chord with Jovanna. It wasn’t something she’d ever really thought of, but something about the idea of being part of a football family made her want to give it a shot. She approached Hobbton football coach Joe Salas with the idea, and he was on board with it.
“She came out and worked with us in the summer,” Salas said. “She hit the ball well, and she’s been great for us all season.”
Allie graduated from Princeton in 2018 and currently plays soccer at Barton College. When she found out that Jovanna was following in her footsteps, she made sure to come back home for the Bulldogs’ homecoming game against Hobbton. It was a good night for Allie: Princeton got the win, and Jovanna went a perfect 2-2 on PATs. The two talked after the game, and Allie told Jovanna she was proud of her for giving kicking a chance.
“I was so happy to see that she decided to try it,” Allie said. “Whenever I see a girl that can kick well, I tell them they should try kicking for football.”
Not just a gimmick
Coincidentally, Jovanna wasn’t the first girl who wanted to kick for Salas. Back when he was coaching at South Johnston, Salas had girls’ soccer star Morgan Gatlin try out. A family friend who was the father of the previous kicker suggested she kick for the football team. Morgan wasn’t quite sure if it was a joke, but she thought it might be fun.
“They needed a kicker,” Morgan said. “So I just went out to practice and kicked for fun, and it went pretty well.”
But then there was a coaching change before the start of the season, and suddenly Shane Dular was the man in charge. Morgan was still part of the team, but she wasn’t sure how secure her postion was.
The first game of the season was against Midway at home. Morgan was all nerves. She sliced her very first PAT wide right. She thought for sure she’d be benched.
“I was so scared,” Morgan said. “I felt like I had confirmed everyone’s assumption that a girl couldn’t do it, and that me kicking was just a big publicity stunt.”
But Shular sent her back out there, and sure enough this time she struck it right down the middle. She finished the season hitting 84.2 percent of her PATs.
“It was such a relief,” Morgan said. “And I never felt like my teammates doubted me. They were always really positive, and I think that helped a lot.”
It also helped that she had heard about another girl kicking at Princeton a couple of years earlier.
Becoming a role model
Amber Brush never really thought of herself as a pioneer. She just heard through the grapevine that the 2009 Princeton football team desperately needed a kicker. Amber was a stud soccer player and had been playing since she was 4 years old. So she told the coach she wanted to kick.
“How hard can it be?” Amber said about her mindset heading into tryouts. “The ball’s a different shape, but the technique isn’t any more difficult.”
She could tell the coaches weren’t all on board with the idea at first because they seemed to filter themselves around her. But eventually they got comfortable and treated her like any other player.
“I was just one of the guys,” Amber said.
Still, she could sense skepticism among the community. But once she hit that first PAT, everyone started to come around.
“No one had really seen a girl kicking in the area before, so I can understand it,” Amber said. “But once I started making kicks, they realized I was for real.”
Amber loves sharing her story with young girls, and she tries to encourage them to do whatever they want.
“Any time a girl tells me she wants to kick, I say, ‘Go for it, girl,’” Amber said. “I think girls should be encouraged to do the things they want.”
She’s not alone in that sentiment.
“I think it’s important for young girls to understand that you can do whatever you put your time into,” Morgan said. “You’re not necessarily bound by these standards society holds us to.”
Morgan said she had lots of little girls come up to her and tell her she inspired them in some way.
“They all thought it was so cool,” Morgan said. “Looking back, it was a big deal in the sense that [kicking] wasn’t something a lot of girls thought they could do. I think it’s important for them to know and be told that they can.”
Today and beyond
When Jovanna joined the football team, she wasn’t quite sure how she’d be received. She didn’t know much about football, and she didn’t want to look like the clueless little girl out there just for fun.
“I didn’t know how the boys would react because boys can build up a wall sometimes,” Jovanna said.
But they’ve been nothing but welcoming. She said the entire team has been willing to help her whenever she has a question. Jovanna’s part of the Wildcat family now, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They’ve been very open, and nice, and they motivate me every day to get better and better,” Jovanna said. “Coach Salas is very big on family, and that’s been a big thing for the whole team. That’s been a big part of what’s helped me be successful.”
Hobbton’s season isn’t over yet, but Jovanna’s already started playing recruiter for next season. She’s trying to convince one of the girls from her soccer team to kick next year.
“Right now she’s being hesitant,” Jovanna said. “But I’m going to keep trying to get her to do it, because I know she’s good enough and I think she’d enjoy the experience. I’ve enjoyed this opportunity so much, and I feel like I’ve grown a lot because of it. I think that’s something other girls should get to experience too.”
In 2009 it was Amber Brush. In 2011 it was Morgan Gatlin. In 2017 it was Allie Britt. In 2018 it’s Jovanna Zapata. And in the future, they all hope there will be many more girls to follow.