There was a time not so long ago when Monica Ramirez let being small get into her head.
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At 5 feet, 1 inch tall and barely 100 pounds, Ramirez became one of the area's premier girls soccer players. After fighting through injuries the last two seasons, she was finally healthy for the entire 2014 season. What that meant was bad news for St. Edward's opponents.
"I remember St. Francis," says 19th-year St. Edward coach Tim Brieger. "They tried to beat her up physically with a big girl on her to mark her. She didn't back down one bit. You look at her and see a small girl then you see her play and just go 'Wow!' "
The St. Edward soccer community said a lot of wows this season, and Ramirez was the leader of that talented bunch that went 26-3 and finished third at the Class 1A state tournament -- the highest finish in program history.
For her efforts this season, Ramirez has been selected the honorary captain of the Daily Herald's Fox Valley girls soccer all-area team. She becomes the third straight St. Edward player and fourth overall to earn the award, following teammate Corey Lepoudre last year, Paige Gannon in 2012 and Becky Duffy in 2000.
To say Ramirez comes from a soccer family would be like saying the sun rises in the east -- no debate.
"When I was little my sister Bianca played soccer and my mom would always take me to her games," said Ramirez, whose sisters Bianca and Veronica are also St. Edward grads. "She put me in soccer and she told me I used to sit on the field and pick grass and wave to her. She said she'd put me in soccer one more year and if I kept doing that she'd put me in something else. Something clicked and all of a sudden I was running all over the field and running over the boys."
And, thus, a soccer career that will now evolve to Division I Illinois-Chicago was born.
From those early days, Ramirez joined club teams from the Elgin Kickers, Hoffman Estates and Naperville before settling on the Heat United out of Huntley, for which she still plays.
And at St. Edward, she overcame a mental block of sorts about her size with the help of one great friend and many others.
"Mentally my game has improved and my fitness has improved," said Ramirez, who scored 13 goals and had 14 assists this season. "I wasn't as strong mentally the past couple of years. Being one of the smaller players was hard. People would comment that I couldn't play at this level because of my size and it would get in my head and on the field I wasn't playing my best. But all the other players around me were so encouraging."
The most encouragement, Ramirez says, came from teammate Alex Zeller, who will play at Wisconsin-Green Bay next year.
"We played club together and she's always been there for me telling me I'm a good player," Ramirez said. "She's always been on my side. I kept telling her I didn't know if I could play DI and she's the one who kept telling me I can.
"I didn't think I'd be able to play DI but when coach (Brian) Rigby from UIC called me and I went down there, I realized I could play with these players. I'm just so grateful for all the people who have lifted me up."
That was never a question in Brieger's mind about Ramirez's ability, especially when he'd have game officials far and wide telling him Ramirez, the Suburban Christian Conference Player of the Year, was the best player on the field for either team.
"People learned the hard way to respect her," Brieger said. "A lot of people gave her the middle of the field, sagged off her and said when she gets to the 18 they'd beat her up. But she packs a wallop herself. On a team of elite players she was above and beyond and this was the first year we had her completely healthy."
Ramirez played volleyball and basketball when she was younger but something about soccer clicked.
"I just like the team aspect of soccer," she said. "Soccer is so creative and there are so many systems. It's instinctual and I just like the creativity of soccer."
Ramirez got to live the high school athlete's dream of playing in the state finals not once but twice for the Green Wave. As a freshman in 2011 she was on the team that took fourth at state, and then this spring she had the lead role in the Wave's production of "Finishing where we started."
"It's a great achievement and it means so much that when I leave here there's going to be a trophy with my name on it, two even," she said. "The support we got from the school over the years and so many people backing us up was incredible. This was the best season I've ever had and when we got third in the state it was golden."
On top of it all, in addition to the rigors of being a Division I recruit, Ramirez performed at an exceptionally high level academically, recording a 29 on her ACT and graduating with a 4.45 GPA on a 4.0 scale. The salutatorian of the Class of 2014, she will study bioengineering at UIC and says she might go into medical school at some point.
"All of her teachers have high praise for her and say what an amazing young lady she is, and she is," Brieger said.
Ramirez has a general idea of what she'd like to do in the future but it won't include animals as she once thought it would.
"I wanted to be a vet for the longest time then I realized I really only like dogs," she laughed. "I love biology and learning about stuff that goes on with the body. I think it would be cool to do surgeries, especially sports-related."
Figures. She sure did carve up St. Edward's soccer opponents this year.