New Panther head coach Isaac Reyesmejia (Ray-is-muh-he-uh) paces quickly in the center of the field and shouts a question: “Ladies! What do we fear?”
Their answer, in unison: “We have no fear!”
This is the message, which can be heard half-a-dozen times during a two-hour practice, Reyesmejia has already instilled into the minds of his players.
Not bad for a coach during his second day on the job, and for a team that wasn’t sure if it would even have a coach to begin the season.
Reyesmejia, whose hiring was approved by the Powell school board on Tuesday, understands the challenge he and the Panthers face with less than two weeks before their first game.
“The timeline that I have right now, I think it’s challenging,” Reyesmejia said. “I’ve had to crunch everything down.”
The father of four from Cody (he is an assistant coach for the Cody High School boys’ basketball team) said his Army background helps him adapt to and overcome less-than-ideal situations.
“I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a problem,” Reyesmejia said. “I think it’s a great challenge ... I think we’re doing pretty good as of now.”
The coach and players haven’t wasted much time feeling each other out. Each party has earnestly jumped into practice and seems more than willing to learn on the fly.
“It’s just a matter of getting to know each other right now,” Reyesmejia said. “When you haven’t had the opportunity to really talk to the players before, or you haven’t had an offseason to work on some things, the first weeks are always a little bit tougher. But I think the ladies are being very open to the way practices are being held.”
The first two practices have been a return to the basics for the PHS girls. Passing, shooting, dribbling, first touches, even running. If it’s a fundamental of soccer, Reyesmejia (“Coach Reyes,” he says, for the easily tongue-tied) needs to understand his players’ grasp on it.
“I need to see exactly who needs to improve in what areas,” he said.
Reyesmejia has a lot to assess, and little time to do it. With Powell’s season opener versus Pinedale coming fast (Saturday, March 22, 11 a.m.), the Panthers’ starting lineup likely will be a work in process.
“I’m going to have to trust my instinct in who I think can handle (each) position, and of course that’s going to change,” Reyesmejia said.
The coach said player evaluations already have begun. As he walks amongst his players during drills, shouting words of encouragement, he’s taking mental notes.
“But next week is going to be a lot of writing down, starting to put those names together and put them in their positions and where I need to have them ready for the first game,” Reyesmejia said. “Next week, by Thursday, I’m going to know who is going to go out there (to) start, and then I’ll announce it on Friday, the day before the game.”
The girls finished the 2013 season 8-10-1 overall and 2-2 in Class 3A Northwest, a huge improvement over their 2-11 (0-4 in conference) campaign.
Reyesmejia wants to continue Powell’s upward trend.
“The best players are going to play,” the coach said. “I need to put the best team out there so ... we can compete and we can win games.”
Defense and superior conditioning will carry the Panthers initially, Reyesmejia said.
“From my understanding, the girls have always had a good defensive team, at least the past couple years,” he said. “In any sport, you’ve always heard it: Defense wins championships.”
The Panthers “have literally all season” to work on their offense, Reyesmejia said. Installing an offense that suits Powell’s skills will be easier once Reyesmejia has identified just where the Panthers’ strengths lie.
His players aren’t the only ones who will be constantly scouted. Reyesmejia said he has to be honest with himself and unafraid to change course if needed.
“You always have to check your ego when you’re a coach,” Reyesmejia said. “I like to keep myself grounded when it comes to understanding my limitations, my shortcomings and the good things about me.”
This is Reyesmejia’s first head coaching job at the varsity level, though he began as a volunteer coach at age 14 and continued on to head-coaching gigs at the youth level and was an assistant coach at the high school level.
His playing experience goes deeper, back to his childhood in Peru, where he lived until age 12.
“When I came to the States I learned to play other sports, but I never (pushed) soccer away from me,” said Reyesmejia, who played in the Army.
But he says there’s always more to learn.
“Soccer, like with any sport, you’re not going to know everything,” Reyesmejia said. “Even as coaches you’re going to make mistakes. I do a lot of research for any sport I coach. I do research before, during and after and always assess myself.”
Reyesmejia gives himself “after-actions reviews,” just one example of how his military background informs his coaching style. Reyesmejia still serves the Army as a recruiter in Cody, but he ensured parents and players during a Monday meeting that he had no intention of bringing his work onto the soccer field.
“As long as they’re having fun and we’re working hard, I think those two things are really going to make us successful through the season,” he said. What day? Reyesmejia stands in the center of a ring formed by tired, gasping Panther players. He has them close their eyes and focus on their breathing. The chilled March air cools their burning lungs.
Practice has been tough. And coach promises they’ll get tougher.
“Next week is going to be a really tough week as far as the physicality of practices,” he said.
He asks them again: “What do we fear?!”
The team takes a collective breath and fires back in one voice: “We have no fear!”
Reyesmejia’s practices are brisk, and his message is clear.