Happy Feet: T-Ducks Miranda Ibarra is the essence of a modern-day defender

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At 5 feet tall, coupled with a quiet demeanor, you could be forgiven if you didn’t pick Miranda Francisca Ibarra out in the crowd. “Frankie,” as she is popularly referred to by her friends and coaches, is reserved. She is a woman of few words who talks about teaching history one day, but with a soccer ball at her feet she transforms into a giant, with an unabashed desire to win.

Ibarra, left, takes players on and dribbles away from a Brookhaven defender on Oct. 22. The Richland women’s team won the NJCAA Div. III national championship this year.

Ibarra, left, takes players on and dribbles away from a Brookhaven defender on Oct. 22. The Richland women’s team won the NJCAA Div. III national championship this year.

It is this tenacity and drive that has garnered her such acclaim. Ibarra ended the 2018 season as a champion and MVP for the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association (NJCAA) Div. III soccer finals. A fulcrum for Richland, she proved irreplaceable throughout the course of the season.

For much of her youth, Ibarra played for the Dallas Texans. She was either used as a midfielder or forward. In her senior year at a high school in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, she considered calling it quits on playing competitive soccer. Some of her teammates had signed letters of intent to play at four-year colleges, but she didn’t get any offers.

The lack of attention was demoralizing. Clinging on to a sliver of hope, she went for the Exact Soccer showcase, a place for college coaches to look at potential players in the winter of 2016. That marked the ascension of Frankie the soccer player.

Ibarra, left, drives against Mountain View on Oct. 5. She won MVP honors at the Nationals.

Ibarra, left, drives against Mountain View on Oct. 5. She won MVP honors at the Nationals.

“I met Frankie at a soccer clinic. There were probably 150 girls and she was really, really smooth on the ball,” said Richland women’s soccer coach Scott Toups.

Toups contacted her, and she visited the Richland campus. But she was not interested in attending a community college.

“Then I found out that her cousin actually played for me in my last college. Her name was Romy Fraga. And so when I found out that they were related, I called her up, and I said you’ve got to help me get your cousin over here,” Toups said.

“I kind of talked to her about giving Scott a chance and letting him kind of guide her in the direction she might want to go. I told her some stories that I went through with him regarding playing,” Fraga said. “Give it a shot, because she didn’t know if she wanted to play in college and a year wasn’t going to be something that would break her.”

Ibarra gave in. In late April 2017, she decided to commit to Richland.

In her first year, Ibarra was a starter. She was part of a team that was billed to go all the way, but Richland faltered when it mattered most. They lost to archrivals Brookhaven College in the 2017 district finals.

Frankie 2.0

“I think the personalities [this year] are way different. Last year, a couple of people wanted to stay to [themselves], and we didn’t want to get all together and become an actual group. I think this year a lot of the girls are pretty close friends now,” Ibarra said at the beginning of her sophomore season.

It is this new-found camaraderie among her peers and Ibarra’s leadership qualities that spurred the team on this year.

At the start of the 2018 season, the aura around Ibarra was different. There was this whiff of confidence and swagger in her play. Where she would normally pass the ball in 2017, she was now taking a touch and driving at her opponent. Slithering past them like an ice skater, she was graceful. She became a dancer, performing with no inhibitions.

“She’s a strider,” Fraga said. “She definitely knows when to tackle and when to be patient. She knew when to not make the run and [when to] make the run and I think that [by] her playing different positions throughout the years, she’s gotten to learn how to read the game super great.”

Dance is an art form centered on intricacy. The essence of a dancer is most poignant when the movement and the music are in melodious harmony. For Frankie the field is her dance floor. She pirouettes around defenders, slaloming through with the ease of a seasoned professional. She’s in her element when she’s in motion and when she is in motion, she is almost unstoppable.

She was unstoppable one game in early September.

It was a windy evening with heavy drizzle in Dallas when the Richland Thunderducks took on the Blinn College Buccaneers from Brenham on Sept. 10.

Richland went into the halftime break 2-0 up, but the score line flattered to deceive. The game was a drab affair of misplaced passes and near misses. Richland wasn’t able to muster up any clear-cut chances except for the goals.

Richland struggled to assert control in the second half. Toups’s solution was Ibarra. She was moved from defense to attack. She proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle.

In a frenzied 15-minute spell, Ibarra created three goals. Her movement and trickery were too much for the Blinn defense; three spectacular contributions, but the play that stood out was her second assist.

Ibarra controlled a looping ball sublimely in Blinn’s penalty box despite the attention of the defenders circling her. She danced past one, two, three opponents before laying it off for a teammate to finish.

She was subbed off to an ovation from the fans and her teammates.

In her wake, as she walked off, the Blinn defenders flashed relieved smiles. Ibarra would not terrorize them any further.

“She was capable of doing it [dribbling] and every once in a while, she would break out of that shell and go out and attack. This year, I think just coming back as a sophomore, a little bit older, a little bit more confident, she just came out of her shell and all of a sudden, every game it was her going forward and taking players on. It’s a huge part of her game, that’s for sure.” Toups said.

It was her identity.

Defender on the attack

Defenders naturally aren’t the flashiest players on a soccer field. They are, by nature, tasked with the dirty work of clearing the ball from the danger zone. So, when a defender has the confidence to take players on, it is automatically a risk. If you lose the ball, you concede a potential goal-scoring opportunity to your opponent.

“It used to be that defenders just defend. We would always joke that they’re not allowed to cross the halfway line, [but] soccer kind of changed, especially, outside backs really became attacking players. Frankie fits right in there,” Toups said.

Ibarra does not command the presence that a typical defender should have, but what she lacks in height she makes up for with technique, zeal and intelligence.

A 21st-century player, she embodies the persona and is adorned with the skill set that modern soccer is leaning toward: the ability to think fast, move and pass with precision under pressure.

“You know who she reminds me of? Marcelo from Real Madrid,” Richland forward Claudio Pedroza said. “The second that she gets the ball she already has it, and she goes with it. And even the headers, she is always winning the ball. Even against bigger players, she’s the one winning it.”

Marcelo, much like many Brazilian players, is silky; a fullback with an ammo of flair and creativity. It is these attributes that have made him an unshakable starter for Real Madrid, the current UEFA Champions League winners.

That is largely what Toups saw when he pursued Ibarra.

“She’s a very good individual defender [and] one-v-one defender. She’s got good speed, times things really well, but her ability to go forward and be an attacking player, that’s the modern game now,” Toups said.

The game is evolving, but most coaches are not as progressive as Toups. Several coaches passed on Ibarra before she signed with Richland, but Toups’s faith in Ibarra paid off.

This season Toups changed his formation. Normally Richland played four defenders at the back, but Toups believed he had three top-notch defenders, and that was enough.

Ibarra alongside Alexis Jordan and Alexis Lawrence were the nucleus of the team. Ibarra was fond of the formation switch. The defense was her vantage point. It allowed her more leeway and room to roam further down the field because she was assured in her defensive partners to cover her.

This new Ibarra led the team throughout the season. In a rematch of last year’s district final, Richland played Brookhaven College, but this time the story was rewritten.

Ibarra led valiantly from the back. She played with the fervor of a person seeking retribution. Richland did it. The team defeated Brookhaven 2-1 to qualify for the nationals.

The final test

Three games stood between Richland and the national championship which took place in Wedgbury, Ill. in November. The first two were routine wins for the Thunderducks. They blew past the quarterfinals with a 9-0 win and in the semifinal, they won 5-1.

The final was the hardest test yet, and, on the grandest stage, Ibarra would turn up again.

She bombed through the midfield, ghosting past the defense before laying up for the sumptuous strike by Eva Mulligan. It was a trademark Ibarra run and a magnificent strike from Mulligan that gave Richland the lead against Delta College from Center, Mich.

After the goal, a Richland defender sustained an ankle injury. She was substituted off, prompting a change in formation. This left Richland vulnerable to pressure from the Delta frontline. Ibarra had to be steadfast in her defensive duties.

Ibarra led the backline, fighting for every ball until the final whistle sounded, and the Richland women’s soccer team became national champions for the first time since 2014.

“I think I worked pretty hard this season, and I was focused as much as I could’ve been in those three games,” Ibarra said. “I think it’s one of the best seasons I’ve had throughout my soccer career. Had a couple of losses, but overall I like the girls, I like the coaching, and some games were not that challenging. But I still had fun.”

After stellar performances throughout the tournament, Ibarra was named MVP.

“We weren’t surprised when they mentioned her name,” Pedroza said. “She was always a player that we [could] always count on no matter what. If they [opponents] got past our midfield or anything we just knew Frankie is there, Frankie is there, and she won balls for us.”

Two years from the start of her collegiate career, Ibarra has defied expectations and setbacks to establish herself as one of the best NJCAA players in the country.

Ibarra is no longer auditioning for a role at a showcase. This time, the coaches are lining up trying to woo the diminutive technician. In fact, she has had several offers from four-year universities. She is no longer on the verge of quitting. Instead, she is reinvigorated with belief. She is an MVP. She is the dancer who decides where she steps next.

“I think she can definitely play at any level,” Toups said. “As soon as she plays, and they see how valuable she is you’d be nuts not to give her a spot or a chance. I don’t care what team you’ve got. She’s that special player.”