The four-page hand-written letter to her high school soccer coach and his wife was not what anybody would expect at the time of a young person’s graduation.
A simple “Thank You” card or verbal expression would not do for Mariah Loya, who recently graduated from Ironwood Ridge High School after completing a stellar four-year varsity soccer career for the Nighthawks.
The well-composed, heartfelt letter from Loya to Ironwood Ridge coach Sean Watkins and his wife Jillian included words such as “you guys have been the parents I’ve always needed by my side,” and to Watkins specifically, “I owe so much to you as if I were your own daughter.”
She also addressed Watkins this way: “You are my hero and I love you so much. I am proud to be your soccer child.”
The sentiment toward a male role model on this Father’s Day goes beyond the paternal kind. For Loya, who will attend Maryville University in St. Louis on a soccer scholarship starting this fall, her bond with Watkins served as a necessary daughter-father kind of relationship since Watkins began coaching her at the club level for the Tucson Soccer Academy when she was in grade school.
“I just feel like I can go to him for everything,” Loya said of Watkins. “I can talk to him about how my day was going. We talked about everything. I think I talked to him more than my own parents.”
After her parents became separated and divorced, the soccer field became Loya’s refuge — she started playing the sport at 4 years old — and Watkins evolved into the guiding force that kept her life intact.
His time with her began with TSA, and he continued to coach her through middle school and at Ironwood Ridge. His influence on her in the last decade is immeasurable, according to Loya’s mom, Yvonne Lara.
“I really appreciated it that she had such a great role model at school and on the field,” Lara said. “I think they grew to love each other. They are both very hard headed. Mariah is very strong willed and has a mind of her own.
“She butt heads with him and questioned him a lot, actually. I think he wasn’t used to that. It was a, ‘Do what I say,’ sort of thing. She would question everything. They really respect and love each other. He was so proud of her and how hard she worked.”
Watkins, who has five children, said he is as prideful of Loya as his own.
Of all the hundreds of kids he has coached, Loya “is the one who hits the heart the most.”
Watkins mentioned that he and another influential youth soccer coach for Loya — Charlie Kendrick — had a meaningful conversation of the young player’s life direction.
“He took over the TSA 99 team from me,” Watkins said. “We spoke in length about Mariah and we were in agreement that she is a kid that may be a risk of falling off the path without soccer. Charlie didn’t give her an inch and pushed her to be better when she resisted growth. He was a role model that she needed at the time.”
Watkins said he experienced turbulence from Loya from the start during their TSA days, but that frank interaction is what makes them so compatible today.
“To be honest with you, she is a pain in the ass sometimes,” Watkins said with a laugh.
“We went at it a few times. It never crossed a line of disrespect for one of us. She would bark at me and I would look at her and say, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to play?’ She was like, ‘Dang it. You’re right. I want to play.'”
The “chip on her shoulder”, as both Lara and Watkins described Loya’s behavior at a younger age, was one that she acknowledged comes from her being “very competitive.”
“I really appreciated it that she had such a great role model at school and on the field. I think they grew to love each other. They are both very hard headed. Mariah is very strong willed and has a mind of her own. She butt heads with him and questioned him a lot, actually. I think he wasn’t used to that. It was a, ‘Do what I say,’ sort of thing. She would question everything. They really respect and love each other. He was so proud of her and how hard she worked.”
— Yvonne Lara, on the relationship between her daughter and Ironwood Ridge’s soccer coach
“I told her that you don’t have to have a chip on your shoulder,” Watkins said. “I told her that you don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to be me against the world. She picked up on that. It softened her a little bit.”
The softest moment imaginable occurred at Ironwood Ridge’s team banquet after the season was completed.
Watkins spoke about his players while handing out certificates. He saved Loya for last. While talking about her development and his respect for her, he became emotional.
Soon, many of the people in attendance were in tears.
“That made me cry,” Lara said. “She’s like his daughter.”
“I was shocked,” Loya said of Watkins’ display of emotion. “It was really nice of him.”
“I got to watch her grow,” Watkins said when asked about his speech. “I’m thankful for that experience.”
Watkins’ coaching impact on Loya’s soccer talents helped her mature into a player capable of advancing to the college level.
Loya, a midfielder, was selected to the All Sports Tucson All-Division First Team. Watkins was chosen the Coach of the Year.
When Loya was a freshman at Ironwood Ridge, Watkins purposely made her compete against the upperclassmen. As a sophomore, Loya played a bulk of the minutes along with 11 seniors. Watkins also used Loya at every position to give her a better understanding of all that goes into a functional soccer team.
“That’s when I learned how to play real soccer,” Loya said. “He was one of the first coaches who moved me to so many different positions until I found the right one for myself, which was holding mid. That’s when I expanded on that position and really learned it and got good at it.
“He also taught me how to be mentally strong and how to lead a team. There was a time I thought I was really bad compared to all of the seniors in my freshman year, but he always pushed me. I mean, it was scary because I had never played at that level. I’ve only played with my own age. When I started at Ironwood Ridge, I had to learn to work for the team and not just myself. It definitely taught me a lot about how to grow up fast. I couldn’t make dumb fouls or dumb decisions.”
“I told her that you don’t have to have a chip on your shoulder. I told her that you don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to be me against the world. She picked up on that. It softened her a little bit.”
— Watkins commenting about his talks with Loya during her development
Watkins was also essential in Loya landing a scholarship with Maryville.
The men’s coach at Maryville — Tucsonan David Korn, who graduated from Canyon del Oro and the University of Arizona — played under Watkins at the club level and while with the Dorados.
Korn came in contact last year with Loya at a camp in Phoenix that presented the opportunity for college recruiters to observe prospective athletes. Korn discovered that Loya played for Watkins at Ironwood Ridge. Korn and Watkins communicated about her over the phone.
“It was all by happenstance, which was amazing,” Watkins said. “We contacted the women’s coach at Maryville (Eric Delabar) and it turned out they needed a player like her. She visited the campus and got the scholarship offer.”
The dominoes that fell leading to the scholarship offer included Loya’s desire to attend Ironwood Ridge and play under Watkins instead of play at Tucson High School, which is close to where she lives with her mom.
She believed that playing under Watkins’ guidance would fulfill her goal of playing in college, expanding her horizons outside of Tucson in the process.
Watkins said Loya’s father would drive her to Ironwood Ridge early in the morning before he went to work as a principal at a school in southeast Tucson.
“She had bigger dreams than the people around her,” Watkins said. “She would get to Ironwood Ridge about an hour to two hours before she had to go to class. She would finish her homework outside until the library opened. She hitched a ride to home or to soccer practice. Sometimes, she would not get home until 10:30 p.m. and then she would do it all over again the next day.
“She didn’t have to do all of that. She chose to.”
“I owe so much to you as if I were your own daughter.”
— Loya writing to Watkins and his wife
Another motivating force for Loya — her grandmother Cecilia Lara — passed away recently. Cecilia’s funeral was last week.
Loya reflected on what her grandmother meant to her development as a person, saying, “My Nana basically raised me. She always wanted me to do better.”
“She always said she would give me her powers,” Loya continued. “If I lost, I would go to her and be like, ‘Nana, you didn’t use your powers.’ She would be like, ‘Oh my God, I forgot.'”
She laughed and paused. “My Nana loved us. She was always proud of me and my brother, which is nice. She was the biggest role model in my life.”
Loya’s life is an example of various influential figures impacting her in a certain way during her development, a time in which she needed direction.
The soccer dad and mom she has with Watkins and his wife will continue to guide her and support her in addition to her own parents.
“Thank you for always being right, even when I didn’t want you to be, and for giving me advice and help that no one else in my life was giving,” Loya wrote in an other part of her letter to Watkins. “You genuinely inspire me Watkins and I strive to be even remotely as happy as you are with your family and Jill.”
She ends her letter to Watkins and his wife this way:
“I love you both so much and I’m so excited to move on with life but with both of you in it. Thank you for everything. EVERYTHING.
“Love, Mariah/Riot ♥”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.