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A year’s worth of sweat, effort and determination came down to a single moment for Katie Estrada.
Hovering over the ball prior to a crucial penalty kick in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs this May, North Hall’s talismanic striker –a jokester, a leader and a scorer –suddenly became keenly aware of the pressure that led the senior to this point.
And all she had done to make it there.
“I was definitely shocked,” said Estrada earlier this week. “I froze before kicking it. I just sat there for a moment. It was a game changer; I knew I had to get this in. All the fans in the stadium, it hit me even harder.”
After what seemed like an age to the Emmanuel College commit, Estrada converted the game-winning penalty to secure the Lady Trojans’ win over Eagles Landing and earn a spot in the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2009.
Each one of Estrada’s 27 goals in 2016 helped validate nearly a year of constant conditioning work as the North Hall standout worked tirelessly to stay alert and ready late in games.
The work paid off handsomely: Estrada was recently named the Region 8-AAAA Player of the Year following her most successful campaign yet.
For her efforts, Estrada is The Times’ All-Area Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
“It was her drive, her desire to be successful,” said North Hall coach Gary Gaddy. “For a player of that caliber… she’s so coachable and approachable.
Estrada was always a threat to score, said Lady Trojans assistant coach Stacey Baalam, but the striker sometimes lagged in pace behind her faster club team peers with the Allen Creek LSA Sharks heading into her junior year at North Hall.
Motivated by her coach, Ben Chedgy, Estrada embarked on an ambitious training regimen to improve her speed, on and off the ball.
She saw the biggest improvement, interestingly enough, inside.
She and several other North Hall teammates began training during the offseason at the Atlanta Silverbacks Suwanee Indoor facility, where they were afforded the opportunity to play five or six-a-side games on a smaller field.
Playing indoor soccer typically helps endurance by having all of the action closer, while putting a strong focus on technical, first-touch ability.
“You’ve got to be fit,” said Estrada. “When the field is that small, not even half of a normal outside field, you’ve got to keep up with the game and it helps with how fast you move, on and off the ball. … (My coaches) knew I was a good athlete, that I had all the skills I needed, but I needed the speed.”
Combining her indoor soccer stints with several specially-designed speed drills, Estrada said she started seeing visible improvement in her fitness heading into North Hall’s winter conditioning.
Baalam believes that the newly-focused Estrada was the best version yet.
“We reaped the benefits from that,” said Baalam. “When coach Gaddy would offer more time to do runs and sprints, maybe only six players would turn up, and she’d be one. We used to have to drag her to one of those things, but now she’s really understood the importance of that.”
But Katie was still Katie: The prankster that her teammates loved. Gaddy said his striker would sometimes give prank gifts to underclassmen, mix around uniforms in the locker room or give her friends a hard time on the practice field.
Estrada’s favorite antic was to “nutmeg” (pass the ball through someone’s legs) her coaches, especially if they were in the middle of a post-game team talk.
“I’m a person who likes to have fun,” said Estrada. “You’ll see me laughing more than anything. Coaches might not think I’m paying attention, but I love soccer. It’s a passion.”
Estrada’s play on the field spoke louder than anything. The striker led her team in scoring and set up crucial game-winning goals this season against teams like Johnson, Chestatee and Carrollton (where she scored a hat trick in a 4-3 victory).
And when it came down to one moment, with just 11 minutes left on the clock against Eagle’s Landing, Estrada took her shot and buried it in the back of the net.
“She’s the settling factor for us,” said Gaddy. “Any time there was a tight game, or we were down a goal, I think we always knew that we had an opportunity and a chance. Not just because she could score goals, but it was the little things. She had a never-say-die attitude.”
These days, Estrada is still pushing herself to stay in shape ahead of this fall’s loaded schedule with the Emmanuel College Lions women’s soccer team based in Franklin Springs. The Division-II Lions compete in Conference Carolinas.
Baalam said she’s already reached out to the Emmanuel coach to say that the team will be getting a “special player.” Estrada said she’ll be the first in her immediate family to attend a four-year college in the first year out of high school.
“These four years at North Hall have been amazing,” said Estrada. “I’m happy at where I left my name at the school. It’s been incredible.”