Friday, October 26, 2012

Banana & Pineapples: Freshman duo from Shadle lead Whitworth attack

Friends since sixth grade, Bokma and Pajimola finding success together | Game photos: Gerald Barnhart
“I was able to watch them with the club system and at Shadle Park, and they were phenomenal on the field. I was like ‘man, if we could get them to come to Whitworth, we’ll be blessed indeed.’”

Always together: Pajimola and Bokma
And head coach Jael Hagerott’s Pirates have been blessed many times over this season thanks to Tiara Pajimola and Hannah Bokma, a pair of “goofball” freshman from hometown Shadle Park High School.

Pajimola tallied in the team’s opening road trip to California and has scored at a rate of a goal for every two games to lead the team. Bokma, meanwhile, started the campaign at centerback for a depleted back line before moving back up top for the conference campaign, where she has caught fire of late, scoring the game-winning goal in the last three matches. Together, the two have scored in nine of the 12 conference contests to help lead the team to a league-best 9-1-2 record matched only by Linfield.

“I would give credit to both Damon Hagerott and Kevin Moon in terms of the fact they had seen them previously before I had been in here with the program,” the head coach said of scouting the duo. “They said, ‘hey, these are players that can play” and Kevin said Hannah is a player who can do things on the field and he recommended her to the program. After I saw her play, I was like ‘absolutely.’”

“We trained Hannah in training camp as a centerback and she was a starting centerback for us, primarily due to a lot of the injuries we had sustained. Our primary goal was to get her up front, but given our needs we put her in back because of her speed, her athleticism. She did a good job for us back there. Thankfully, we’ve gotten healthy again and we’ve been able to slide her forward, which has paid dividends.”

The challenge of taking on a new position aside, it proved to be a difficult transition to college ball for Bokma - one that she has obviously persevered through quite well.

“Shadle was like a good group of girls; just go out there and have fun – just kinda show off your skills kind of thing. The GSL has some good competition, but it’s not the toughest competition out there so I think club was really what prepared me for college soccer, especially my coach Kevin Moon.  He just helped me a lot – just got into our team and got on us, telling us how college is and preparing us to play against that. So I think that’s what helped me the most coming into college soccer.”

Jael & Damon Hagerott (top), Kevin Moon
“Hannah worked hard to improve herself the during the two years that I had the opportunity to work with her,” said Moon, her coach with the Spokane Shadow and an assistant at Whitworth. “She is still improving and is starting to understand what work really means. She has tremendous potential.

“Tiara's athleticism and bite are what sets her apart in my opinion and I was glad to have the chance to work with her last year. As she continues to improve technically she is going to become even more of a threat to score at Whitworth. I am excited to see how they and the other freshmen that advanced from the Shadow - Rachel Jones, Polly Blakely and Ashley Rothrock - develop over the next several years. One thing is for sure, they have big shoes to fill as Mackenzie Grow, who also came out of the club, is putting the finishing touches on what I think was an outstanding college soccer career.”

Even with that guidance, the move proved a little bumpy for Bokma.

“At first it was a little rough,” said Bokma. “It’s not quite what I expected; it was quite a bit of change from high school, but I think that now that I am settling down more and getting into my classes and the soccer season, I am starting to figure things out.

“I had a lot of obstacles to face coming into school which I wasn’t expecting, and so it kinda put a lot of stress on me school-wise and soccer-wise.

“I had some inspirational talks with teammates and my coach, and that helped a lot - just getting me a new perspective on how she thinks and how I should react to things. So I think that just gave me a better attitude about playing, and just going out there and having fun. I think that’s helped me score a lot of the goals.”

She finally broke through two weeks ago in Tacoma, scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 victory against Pacific Lutheran. A week later she repeated the feat at home against Pacific University by breaking a stalemate in overtime and then, courtesy of a ball from Pajimola, notched her third winner for a 2-1 decision against George Fox.

“Hannah picked up her own game,” said Hagerott. “She had the potential and she sorta went complacent there. She’s playing the way that she can play, and she’s absolutely powerful on the field.”

Though her coach expected it, her struggles created a situation where the scoring wave came unexpectedly to Bokma herself.

“I was very surprised, very excited,” she said of scoring the three straight winners. “I think it’s just what we needed, and it’s just definitely what I needed – a confidence boost. Having that whole new perspective just boosted my confidence and helped me just play the game that I know how to play and have fun out there.”

She was not the only one who was thrilled with the clutch strikes.

“It’s awesome. I was so excited,” Pajimola said. “Hannah was pretty frustrated with not finding the back of the net. She felt like her work hasn’t been paying off, and I was saying ‘It’s going to come when we need it the most’ and her last three goals have all been game-winners. This is so awesome – we both support each other no matter what. I am just really proud of her.”

Did Pajimola’s seven previous goals inspire Bokma?

“You’d have to ask her on that one,” said Pajimola. “We both inspire each other whenever we are down or doing something poor, we pick each other up – it’s a team effort – and (with our) friendship, it’s nice to have somebody to talk to.

“Yes; look up to my best friend – gotta keep up with her,” said Bokma to the same question.

“If T inspired her that’s good, they can feed off each other,” added Hagerott, who is not surprised by the immediate success of the two. “They are meeting expectations and I would say they are doing what we thought they could do on the field.”

Hagerott obviously knew more than her incoming freshmen, giving them starts right from the opening whistle of the season and playing them both in all 16 games so far.

“It was an awesome surprise,” Pajimola said of the early success in her collegiate career. “I didn’t even know I was going to see this much playing time as a freshman.

“I did not know what to expect but my success as far as finding the back of the net has nothing to do with me all the way. I could not do it without my teammates. It starts from the goalkeeper, the back line, the midfield and then me, and luckily I get the name on the stats. But that means nothing to me – it’s a team effort.”

The one thing Pajimola definitely brings to the field that separates her from the other 21 players on the pitch is her courageous nature in the match, flying around the field and throwing her body into every play to the point that sometimes you are amazed she gets up after wild falls to the ground, including one last Sunday in which she raced a goalkeeper to the ball outside the box and was on the receiving end of a crunching slide tackle.

Rising from a tackle a common sight
“You always hope for fearless players, but hope for fearless players that aren’t stupid, I guess you would say,” said Hagerott. “We are fortunate in that she is willing to go in for tackles and stuff, because sometimes she comes away with balls that maybe other players would back out of.

“On the flip side; if you have a keeper running at you at 100 miles-per-hour, that’s when we tell them to back out of the way – we need you for the next day,” she said, referring to Sunday’s heart-skipping moment. “Hopefully, she’s learned a lesson from that and we can continue where she is fearless, but she’s also smart in terms of how she engages when she’s on the field.”

Battling through physical play is just second nature to Pajimola though.

“I am pretty physical. I think it has something to do with having six siblings,” she said. “I was the youngest, and I have two brothers. One of them is my twin and me and him just when at it for fun. We were always pretty rough with each other so I grew up that way.”

For the Whitworth coaching staff, it is just a matter of making a few modifications to maximize the future of Pajimola, who has displayed a raw talent that made her a high school standout in a carefree environment despite not playing club ball until her senior year

“My high school team was just for fun, just extra-curricular,” Pajimola said, noting college soccer was very different. “It wasn’t anybody who was pretty serious about soccer.

“I didn’t play club throughout high school until my senior year, and that took a lot of persuading because I had a lot of other commitments with my family and work, and we were in a tough financial situation. So club soccer wasn’t really an option for me, but through support from my teammates I was able to play my senior year, and that’s what actually, ultimately, got me to college soccer.”

She's also got some hops
With limited experience and a lighthearted approach to the game prior to the transition to the collegiate ranks, most would be surprised at the immediate success. Hagerott, though, was steadfast in her belief Pajimola would have an impact.

“No, (I was not surprised) just because of what I saw in high school,” Hagerott said. “What you see in T is that she is extremely athletic and combined with the fearless nature of her play, it’s something you don’t see all the time at the Division III level. As we continue to technically refine her game, maybe see how she reads the game on the field, I think she will just become more and more powerful.”

Pajimola herself is even pleased with how the transition has gone.

“As far as soccer goes, it’s awesome. I’m getting a lot of playing time and I am really satisfied with a lot of my teammates and I’m glad I got to build a relationship with everybody in this community,” said Pajimola.

“As far as school, it’s tough. I don’t think I prepared myself as well as I could have, but I’m getting the swing of things and I am doing the best I can. I am just trying to keep up because there is no soccer without grades and that’s what’s important to me right now.”

Playing with her best friend, nothing has changed.

“Same as it’s always been,” she said. “We are both doing pretty well and we love it here at Whitworth, and we are always supporting each other and our success.”

That has been the case for about seven years for the two, a little over a third of their lives.

“I met her in sixth grade and we both changed our elementary schools for just sixth grade,” Pajimola said of their meeting at Woodridge Elementary. “We weren’t close friends, but we were always friends – we played Hoopfest during middle school (at Salk). High school is when we became pretty close during soccer season, and that’s when we pretty much clicked in every aspect of our lives.”

“We weren’t that good of friends, but we would hang out often,” Bokma said of the early years of their friendship. “Then we really became friends when we went to high school and started hanging out together; just really connected together. We could really relate to each other family-wise and how we grew up. Our personalities connected – we were always joking around with each other.”

“(The friendship) started off the field actually,” Pajimola said. “Unfortunately, Hannah didn’t make varsity as a freshman, which was controversial – I thought she should have. That year we weren’t as close, but off the field is where our friendship started. On the field, it just carried through and we continued our friendship on the field and we worked together pretty well.”

That quality of the partnership on the field was echoed by Bokma. “On the soccer field, we just kept up with each other and knew where the other would be. We could play a pass and we knew the other person would be there – just really worked well.”

Having evolved from teammates to best friends after four years at Shadle, the biggest decision facing them was college. And to perhaps no one’s surprise, they ended up in the same place.

“You could say that – no, Hannah was the first,” Pajimola said in response to whether or not choosing Whitworth was a joint decision.

“Actually, Ashley Rothrock, Hannah and I are all best friends. Hannah and Ashley were the first to look into Whitworth and I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. I wanted to stay close to home, so I was thinking about Eastern (Washington University) – even Seattle, like (University of Washington), was too far for me. I wanted to stay in Spokane though, and I liked the idea of Whitworth and I enjoyed the things I heard about the community, so I just followed through and my best friends happened to come here too.”

You would think Rothrock had been left in the shadows by her good friends, but as a freshman keeper who came to Whitworth as an All-GSL Second Team selection as a junior and an All-GSL First Team selection with Pajimola as a senior, she is merely, in essence, waiting her turn despite being ready to contribute in similar fashion as her fellow Highlanders.

“Actually Ashley, she stepped in for us,” said Hagerott. “This year she played very well – huge – against George Fox [a 1-0 overtime road win] and won the game for us, pretty much, during that cycle. It’s between her and Andrea Stump in terms of looking at who’s number one, and we are fully confident in her capabilities if she has to step in and play.”

Talking about her freshman Highlanders, Hagerott beams with pride.

“On the field: (they are) extremely driven, competitive – love it in terms of what they put out day in and day out in training,” the coach said. “Off the field: they’re fun-loving, just good people to be around.”

But what is it like when the trio is together?

“They’re goofballs,” Hagerott remarked with a boisterous laugh. “Along with Ash, the three are just very, very tight and they are just… we call them the Three Amigos.”

Chuckling again in regards to the impact the Three Amigos have had on the rest of the team, she replied “They are just a good group in terms of how they interact with one another and how they interact with the group. Sometimes you can get on certain teams where it’s a cliquish nature, and they are not like that at all. They work well with others; they are just fun-loving. It’s just something that makes me smile when I think about it.”

Though they are now in college, the fun-loving freshmen trio may not necessarily have grown up just yet, and you would have to suspect that long into the future when they are together they never completely will. When spending time together off the field they do the usual teenage things when hanging out with their friends such as video games or “making stuff like T-shirts and bracelets… we just like doing silly stuff,” said Bockma, otherwise known as Banana.

“I call Hannah Banana,” Pajimola said with an affectionate inflection in the pronunciation. “And this one’s bad – I call her fat. We literally just say ‘hey, what’s up fat?’ just because we love eating food. We love ice cream; we can never pull ourselves away from it. We obviously know we are not fat or anything, we just play around with each other like that – we are pretty close.”

“I am told I am the only one that calls Ashley Rocky because her last name is Rothrock, so I call her Rocky. Nobody else does, but I think it’s a good nickname.”

As for Pajimola, “I call her Pineapples… cuz she’s Hawaiian. We always just joke about it,” said Bokma.

Joking aside, the future looks bright for the Three Amigos and the Whitworth Pirates, who head into the final four games in a tie for first with Linfield (9-1-2) and in a three-way race for the conference title with Puget Sound lurking close behind (9-2-1). After a long trip to Oregon, they return to Washington to face UPS at Central Washington and play host to Linfield, putting the Pirates at the helm of their own fate.

“We brought in this freshman class, seeing who we were going to be losing and who we lost last year in the hopes of that they could contribute right away and then that they are also developing in terms of the following year,” Hagerott said of what lies beyond this fall, noting that the team is training the next wave of defensive players and are looking and close to landing some impact players for the freshman class next year. “You never can predict the future, but playing the way they are now, hopefully we will be very solid.”

“I am pretty confident,” said Pajimola of the next three years. “I am excited to see what’s coming after our senior class leaves, which is going to be a big loss for us. We are losing some key players and some great teammates, but I am excited to see what the future has in store.”

“I do feel confident,” said Bokma. “And I am looking forward to improvements that I can make, and adjustments in helping my team and getting the wins for us and combining together and just going forward with the ball.”

Banana and Pineapples going forward with the ball… that’s a scary thought for their conference foes.