By BRIANNA HERNANDEZ
Thump, thump, swoosh goes the soccer ball as it hits the player’s cleat. It’s a familiar sound to Kendra Veliz’s ears as she monitors players during a scrimmage.
“Mark a man,” she calls. “Open up.”
In a sports world heavily dominated by men, Veliz has spent 15 years making a name for herself as head coach for the Pima Community College women’s soccer team.
Veliz was named Arizona Community College Athletic Conference coach of the year in her first year of coaching the PCC Aztecs. Since then she has been voted ACCAC coach of the year four times.
This season, the Aztecs compiled a 16-6-1 record and took second place in the regional championship. Veliz celebrated her 200th career win at Pima with a home victory over Arizona Western College on Oct. 20.
The Aztecs have been crowned National Junior College Athletic Association District A and NJCAA Region I champions three times. The team has also been ACCAC champions five times, most recently in 2015.
Of the 14 sports teams at PCC, Veliz is the only female head coach. The next highest ranking belongs to Rebekah Quiroz, an associate head coach for the softball team.
“To me it’s inspiring,” freshman defender Emily Bliven said. “Many of the teams we’ve faced have male head coaches. It is very much a male-dominated position. To me, that shows just how good she is at her job.”
Veliz said she has never felt pressure to prove herself as a female coach. Instead, she deals with pressures that all coaches face, like the need to improve her team and win championships.
A player at age 9
Veliz began her soccer career in the early ‘80s at age 9 with the Fort Lowell Sidewinders. The Tucson club team made it to the Final Four in the National Soccer Tournament and was a Region IV champion three times. They were also Arizona state champions for five consecutive years.
She later played defense for three years on the Sahuaro High School varsity team.
The city’s soccer scene has exploded since Veliz’s time playing. Semi-professional men’s and women’s FC Tucson teams have emerged in the past six years and made a home for themselves at Kino Sports Complex.
Tucson also brings in professional soccer players annually for the Major League Soccer preseason and Desert Diamond Cup.
“There’s definitely a lot more soccer,” Veliz said. “Currently there’s just overall more of an interest in kids playing. There are more teams than when I played. So within the city of Tucson, you can now find more competition compared to when I was playing.”
After high school, Veliz knew she wanted to experience soccer somewhere other than Tucson.
She took an interest in Boston College’s Division I soccer squad after a BC assistant coach distributed pamphlets at a Sidewinder game during a tournament.
As a Boston College Eagle, Veliz was named to the Big East Conference Academic All-Star Team in 1993 and 1994. She was named MVP in her last year at Boston.
“With playing in college, it gives me the experience to say I’ve been there and done that,” she said. “I’ve been through college and played, and I know the demands and the expectations.”
Dual coaching jobs
Veliz accepted coaching positions in 2001 at both PCC and at the newly established Tucson Soccer Academy. In addition to working with college athletes, she coaches two girls’ TSA squads: for ages under-8 and under-10.
Eddie Hernandez, a TSA coach and former Pima soccer player, called Veliz a tough player who never gave up. “She’s a hard worker and I would say a lot of that translates into how she is as a coach,” he said.
Veliz has earned one of soccer’s highest certifications, a United States Soccer Federation National B license. It focuses on principles of long-term player development and team development for older teenage athletes who play at an elite level.
Veliz said she always knew soccer would play a major role in her life but never imagined she would coach a PCC game at Kino Sports Complex and then travel to the other side of town for TSA practice at Brandi Fenton Park.
“Especially with the youth, it’s really exciting when you see them improve,” Veliz said. “The excitement they exude from achieving something is contagiou. It’s a really great moment.”
She has a slightly different goal for her college players.
“Collegiately, it’s about giving local student-athletes the opportunity they may not have otherwise,” she said.
Veliz struggles to strike a balance between work and family.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “There’s a little too many quick dinners. Since I coach youth in the evening, it definitely makes it challenging.”
For that reason, she limits her coaching to local club teams. “I try not to choose the traveling teams because that takes away from my kids,” she said.
Dave Cosgrove, PCC men’s soccer head coach and a TSA co-founder, said Veliz inspires both her players and her colleagues.
“I’m not sure she has an extra responsibility to motivate young women but she does motivate them,” he said. “She motivates myself and the rest of the coaching staff to continue to improve, never to settle and to inspire our athletes, both men and women.”
Veliz models the type of behaviors, morals, ethics and hard work to which all players and coaches should aspire, Cosgrove added.
“Watching Kendra work, I think anyone would desire to pursue coaching, especially young women,” he said.
As she works with females of varying age groups with unique backgrounds, Veliz continuously opens herself up to players who are interested in pursuing coaching.
“It’s important to encourage these young ladies that are just becoming adults,” she said. “These young adults are very impressionable and so it’s important to have female role models in coaching positions to guide them and hopefully give them a chance at a coaching future as well.”
Several of Veliz’s former PCC players now help coach their high school or club team, including at Tanque Verde High School and the FC Sonora Soccer Club.
“She has inspired me to become a coach,” Bliven said. “I know she will help me become the best coach I can be.”
Veliz welcomes the opportunity to be a role model.
“I think overall, there is a comfort level,” she said. “I mean, your experience has been with women up to that point and that’s how you feel you could contribute and help the most with other women and giving them the opportunities.”