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Seeing a need in Jefferson County, Erika Olivera found a way to help local girls build their skills on the soccer field.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Erika Olivera (center) is a 2019 graduate of Madras High School, and she recently returned home to put on a three-day soccer skills training camp for local girls between 7th and 12th grade.Erika Olivera had to work her tail off to get to where she is today.

Now, the former Madras High School soccer standout is trying to make the journey a little easier for a new group of girls in Jefferson County.

Last week, Olivera held a soccer training camp for middle and high school girls at Madras High School. During the three-day camp, which was held June 28-30, Olivera and other coaches worked with the athletes to build up some of their fundamental skills and improve their on-field IQ — and she is already seeing that work pay off.

"We had a blast this week," Olivera said. "Already, we've seen them grow so much."

Since graduating from MHS in 2019, Olivera has played college soccer at Linfield University, an NCAA Division III program, and Folsom Lake College, part of the California Community College Athletic Association. In recent weeks, she signed a letter of intent to continue her college career at Holy Names University in Oakland, California.

While she has reached her goals of playing at the college level, Olivera's success story is made even more impressive by the lack of local youth programs for girls soccer.

Now, she's trying to fix that problem for the next generation.

Minding the gap

Growing up, Olivera recalls playing for all-boys Kiwanis soccer teams. After she aged out of that program, there was nothing left for her in town besides playing pickup games with her cousins.

There are plenty of club teams in places like Bend and Redmond, but sizable barriers — costs and travel time being the main two — often prevent low-income youth in Jefferson County from taking advantage of those options.

"I got scouted to play on a club team, but I played on a scholarship," she noted. "That was the only way that I was able to play with the club."

Those scholarships are not available for everyone, though, which means there is a big opportunity gap for local girls who want to play soccer.

"If we can start a middle school girls program, hopefully that can turn into a club team," said Olivera. The barriers would not totally disappear, but they would be significantly lower.

When she eventually joined the MHS team, Olivera came to a sudden realization: everyone else's soccer skills had grown rusty over the past few years, while hers had become refined.

Many of her new teammates were back to square one, learning the fundamentals of the game again; meanwhile, she was working toward her own technical mastery. As a result, Olivera found herself bored at times in practices that did not test her limits.

Creating the opportunity

She clearly overcame that listlessness, finishing as a four-time all-league player and parlaying that success into a collegiate career. Now, Olivera wants to put other girls on the same path — and it all starts with something simple: an opportunity.

"That's my mission," said Olivera of creating chances for girls to play the game.

To give them those opportunities, the MHS alumna created an organization called Olivera Soccer Training and started fundraising. Olivera notes that the camp is not just aimed at Madras residents, but at all the girls in Jefferson County who need a little more exposure to soccer. She estimated that there were upwards of 35 participants at the three-day camp, which took place June 28-30, including athletes from Madras, Warm Springs and Culver.

PMG PHOTO: ANDY DIECKHOFF - Since graduating from MHS, Olivera has played collegiate soccer at Linfield University and Folsom Lake College, and she recently signed a letter of intent to play at Holy Names University. Now, she is hoping to put more Jefferson County girls on a similar path."I'm from Madras, I'm a woman of color," she noted. Both are important facts, as a large majority of the players on last year's MHS varsity team share those characteristics. "These girls can see themselves in me, and that is the biggest thing. I wish I would have had that representation growing up."

"I know how hard it is to be one of these girls," Olivera continued. "It was not an easy journey, but it was one that was worth it. I tell the girls that they can do it — they just have to be dedicated."

Even after just three days of training, Olivera is already seeing the effects on the field. By giving the girls structured training in a low-stakes, positive environment, she is also making the game fun for them.

The camp would not have been possible, says Olivera, without the support of Kiwanis, The Bean Foundation, Identity Zone, Grocery Outlet and others in the community. With their help, Olivera was able to provide the girls with t-shirts, water bottles and even their own new soccer balls. Olivera also had the support of other coaches, including MHS varsity girls soccer coach Shawn Darrow, at the camp.

Getting the ball rolling

Olivera knows, however, that a single three-day camp cannot fully replace the experience of growing up in a community that truly supports girls soccer. She is also keenly aware of the huge gap of time between elementary school and high school, where many girls in this community have nowhere to play soccer, often with nobody to play against and with nobody to coach them.

That's why Olivera wants to make this an annual event. It's also why she hopes it will spur further investments of time, money and support from the community to build a stronger and more inclusive girls soccer culture in Jefferson County.

"There's always been so much potential for athletes in Jefferson County," she noted.

"To be able to be the first one to do this, that's just so awesome," said Olivera, who noted that her assistant coaches at the camp. "I know that this is going to be a great start to something."

In fact, she noted that some of her assistant coaches have already suggested that they would be open to coaching the girls while Olivera is away at college.

Speaking of college, it is essential to note that building soccer skills is not the sole focus of the program. Olivera understands that her athletic ability helped her achieve her goals of attending college. Now, she hopes the camp can play a similar role in helping other girls get to that place.

"If we can get more girls to go to college and get their degree," she said, "that will make our whole community so much better."

It's certainly going to take a lot of work to build a girls soccer culture in Madras. There's no way that one person can do it all by herself.

However, with an origin story similar to so many young girls in Jefferson County — and with her on-field success serving as inspiration to those same girls — Erika Olivera appears to be the perfect person to get the ball rolling.

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