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Santa Fe High School girls' soccer coach Ricardo Morales defies youth stigma

(Rafael De Los Santos/WUFT News)
(Rafael De Los Santos/WUFT News)

On a day destined for final goodbyes, Ricardo Morales’ prismatic cleats were symbolic of his energy and enthusiasm as he led team warmups in giggled German.

“Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf.”

A black baseball cap laid backward atop his head, inviting the sunlight to dance around the frames of his glasses, and the reflection of smiles from the girls at Santa Fe High School’s varsity soccer team.

They were proud.

Proud of the man in the black cap and the most colorful cleats on the field.

Proud of their district championship victory over Suwannee High School in January.

Proud of their 22-year-old head coach, Ricardo Morales, as they took turns attempting to encapsulate him into the fringes of a single word.

“Resilient, he’s very resilient,” 16-year-old forward Madison LaLonde’s word laid dignified between the blows of the whistle, signifying the end of their last practice of the season.

As the sun set on their season, Morales tightened the tired strings on the ball bag one last time, the goodbyes, hugs and laughter had left no time to remember.

Almost two years ago, Morales sat across the desk of Santa Fe Athletic Director Michele Faulk. He was a young, eager, ambitious candidate for a job that pitted sport, gender and society against him.

At the time, Morales was a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida. He had spent the previous four years of his life developing his coaching skills as an assistant soccer coach at Sarasota’s Riverview High School and as a youth scout for Major League Soccer team Orlando City Soccer Club.

But like the players he now coached, Morales’ journey did not begin on the sidelines. Away from the portable dry-erase boards blushed with stains of aged tactics played a young Venezuelan boy on the dirt roads of Maracaibo’s Barrio Panamericano.

That was the neighborhood where his abuela Carmen Dávila lived, and the birthplace of his love for soccer. The Moraleses come from a laureled lineage of Venezuelan baseball players.

One uncle played professionally in Venezuela, and another played in the MLB’s minor leagues for the Texas Rangers and the Cincinnati Reds. Morales’ father played collegiate ball in Venezuela.

From a young age, it seemed clear that the name Morales was meant to be engraved on the stout maple of a baseball bat, not the flailing foreign threads of a soccer jersey.

But while his father hoped for another Morales on the baseball diamond, soccer came gift-wrapped in tassels into a young Ricardo Morales’ life.

“When I was about 9, 10 years old, I don't know why, my dad gave me a soccer ball as a birthday gift,” Morales said. “I'm an only child. So the soccer ball, it bounced, you hit it against the wall to come back to you. You don't need somebody else.”

The wall behind his grandmother’s house knew all too well of what Morales spoke of as it cracked open in the shape of a goal, inviting Morales’ dream for afternoons of recreating the matches he watched on television.

“I would get home from school at one, eat, pretend I did my homework and then I would watch the games,” Morales said. “I would go out; grab the ball and I would drop random rocks to pretend like they were defenders and just try to recreate the goals I saw on the TV.”

Morales’ love for the game would grow in the years that followed, spilling out to the streets of the neighborhood.

Makeshift goals and finger-drawn lines in the dirt were all the neighborhood kids needed to replay what they saw on TV. They would take turns being the designated lookout, alerting the rest of the boys of an oncoming car as they scurried to pick their masterpiece up.

If a deflated ball dared to interrupt their dream, his grandmother would ensure he got another, Morales said.

“I must have gone through like 20 different soccer balls from either kicking (them) into the neighbor's house or popping it with a tree or losing them out in the street,” Morales said. “I was a serial killer of soccer balls growing up.”

When Morales was 14, his family decided to move to the United States. By then, Morales’ growing love for soccer had seen the dirt roads turn to concrete, the soccer balls had become too many to count.
“My grandma fueled my interest in soccer. The amount of hoops she jumped to get me to have a soccer ball at all times is the sole reason I started it all,” Morales said.

Equipped with his grandmother’s passion, Morales arrived in the United States with a soccer dream that would be derailed a year later as he tried out for his first team.   

“The first year that I tried out for my soccer team I blew my knee out,” Morales said.

His final attempt at a playing career would be quashed four years later as another knee injury forced him to choose his health over his dream.

“The doctors basically told me, ‘You just can’t play anymore. Any impact is going to hurt your knee even more,’” Morales said. “When you’re 19, 20 years old, you don’t want a knee replacement. And at that point, I had already been involved in coaching.”

At 17, Morales got his first taste of coaching as a varsity soccer team player at Riverview High School, where he would also help coach junior varsity before strapping on his own cleats in time for warmups.

“Even though I was planning to continue to play and I wanted to play college, and I wanted to play professional, it did get to a point where I was looking forward to coaching more than I was looking forward to playing,” Morales said.

With a newfound passion, Morales said he decided to enroll in the University of Florida’s sports management program in 2018.

In the summer of 2019, Morales’ dreams would come to fruition as he landed a coaching job at IMG Academy, a preparatory boarding school and sports training destination in Bradenton.

“That's kind of what kick-started it all. (It's) when I learned about the coaching licensing, when I learned about basically what it takes to be a coach at a high level,” Morales said.

At IMG, Morales took the helm as the summer coach for the under-9 age group, taking his first steps in coaching as his players took their first kicks of organized soccer.

“It was my first experience of ‘I feel like I can do this. I like this,'” Morales said.

“Determined” was 16-year-old forward Grace Miranda’s word to describe her coach. And though she didn’t know it at the time, it could not have described Morales any better at this point in his journey as his ambition began expanding in the coaching world.

With the goal of coaching in mind, Morales went on to pick up a youth scouting job with the Orlando City Soccer Club before the pandemic shut the world, and its dreams, down.

With his scouting job gone, Morales said he began to doubt whether a coaching career was plausible.

“Nobody was hiring,” he said. “It did get to a point where it was like ‘You know what? Maybe this is where it hits, maybe this is a dead end.”

In December 2020, Morales came face to face with the possibility of giving up on coaching just as he had relinquished his playing days to memories. On impulse, he decided to submit his application for a coaching position at Gainesville Soccer Alliance, a youth soccer program that has been bringing organized soccer to the city for more than 25 years.

“It was just an email like, ‘Hey, I just want to coach, whatever team you have, I'll coach it,’” Morales said.

His ambition paid off.

It was an invitation, a lifeline, from GSA athletic director Jeremy Witt.

“He started asking me questions, my experience what I was willing to do,” Morales said. “My answer was still the same: ‘If they want to kick the ball and they want to learn how to kick it better, I'll do it.’”

In January 2021, Morales was hired as GSA’s head coach for the girls' ages-14-and-under team, as well as an assistant coach for the ages-16-and-under team.

“That was the first team I actually got to coach where I actually got to do all the practices and got to coach all the games on my own. I was on cloud nine for a few months. I felt very full, it was everything I had hoped for it to be,” Morales said.

“Dependable” was 15-year-old forward Haidyn Smith’s word. And it wasn’t long before Morales captured the attention of the Gainesville soccer community, as they began to see what Smith saw: a young steadfast coach.

After only one season at GSA, opportunity came knocking for Morales. A job had opened up. Santa Fe High School’s soccer coach was retiring.

“Somebody came up to me and asked me ‘Hey, would you ever be interested in coaching high school? I've seen what you do, I'm impressed,’” Morales said.

Armed with Michele Faulk’s email address, Morales sent over his resumé, laced and polished with the years of hard work that had built up to the very moment he pressed send.

Morales remembers how he felt — a 21-year-old college student awaiting his future – as he sat across from Faulk during his interview.

“I hand over my resumé, I look very young, and she asked me ‘You’re still in college?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still in college,’” Morales said. “She kind of said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’m very put off because you’re very young, you’re a college student. I don’t know how I feel about you being a coach for a girls’ soccer team, a high school girls' soccer team.’”

As he sat there in the balance of Faulk’s reasoning, Morales said: “I understand what it looks like, I just want a chance.”

According to Faulk, her apprehension regarding Morales was only natural given the situation and her responsibility to the school.

But in her eyes, the decision to hire Morales was a result of the coach he had become beyond his age or gender.

“Very quickly, even through the interview, I recognized that this was a very organized, mature young man. Little did I know how organized he was, and that has been one of his strengths,” Faulk said.

Morales’ time at Santa Fe began on the stigmatized grounds he stood on the day he became the “too young” head coach.

“After I got hired, I never thought of the age. I thought of who is going to help me make this the best that I can,” Morales said.

With that in mind, Morales presented now 21-year-old Abbey Rivas, a former Santa Fe High School four-year varsity starter, with the opportunity to become an assistant head coach for her alma mater.

“It seemed like a no-brainer for her to be involved with the program,” Morales said.

With Rivas at his side, Morales then sought Mohammad Majid, 22, as the final piece to a coaching staff that would wear the stigma of inexperience as a banner of confidence.

“On came Mohammad Majid. I always tell people if there’s anybody that could be a much better coach than I am, if there’s anybody that could be a wonderful coach,” Morales said.

According to Majid, public perception does not worry him.

To him, it’s just a matter of letting games speak for themselves.

“We understand who we are, what we are. At the end of the day, our priority is the squad, the girls and getting the best out of them on a mental and physical aspect,” Majid said.

With the coaching staff complete, Santa Fe found success on and off the field as Morales drew on what he was learning in the classroom at UF to bring the best out of the team.

“Being a girls' coach, just seeing the treatment that some of the girl players have had, some of the treatment girl teams have had in the past, that's where I started to take my studies through. That’s what I wanted to do with my major,” Morales said.

“Caring” was 16-year-old goalkeeper Makayla Gilliam’s word.

According to Gilliam, she found a community among the coaches and players at Santa Fe. And she found common ground in their youthful approach to the challenges laid before them.

“It makes me feel more comfortable. I’d talk a different way to someone who’s older. He makes it fun, and he makes it work,” Gilliam said.

Though Morales' focus remains on Santa Fe, he admitted that he dreams of a big future.

“I want to coach, that’s my objective,” he said after beating Suwannee High School in the district championship. “I want to coach college. I want to coach professional. Eventually, my Mount Everest is I want to coach the national team. I want to coach Venezuela.”

To Grace Morgan, Suwannee High School’s varsity girls’ soccer head coach, Morales’ Raiders are one of the most impressive teams in the district, combining speed and experience in possession to win games over their opponents.

“Personally, and honestly, I think he's done a great job with the team," said Morgan, who is 27. "I didn't even know he was actually 22. That's awesome,” Morgan said. “He's 22, and he's got a district championship. That's awesome.”

Almost two years since the day she hired him, Faulk said she still holds Morales as the coaching standard at Santa Fe.

“I always tell him I’m nervous to lose him. I’d never want to keep a coach from advancing in their career. But I’d certainly hate to lose him to anybody because he is one of the best,” Faulk said.

No matter where Morales coaches or what titles he attains, to the girls at Santa Fe he will always be resilient, determined and dependable — but never too young.

Rafael is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.