With an undefeated start to the season, the Venice girls soccer team (4-0) is poised to make it a special one — due in no small part to the Lady Indians coaching staff.
Head coach Gary Bolyard, who has led the team for 10 years now, recruited assistant coaches Lynley Hilligoss, Yazmin Velez and Heather Watkinson within the past two years to help him, and the results have started to show.
“I’m very happy with our staff that we have here,” Bolyard said. “I’ve got three wonderful assistants who I can’t say enough about. Two of them are ex-players of mine.
“I’m an old guy, you know. So these young girls can really relate to these three women. They bring so much to the table it’s not even funny.”
Hilligoss (Iowa State), Velez (Florida Gulf Coast) and Watkinson (Brewton-Parker College) all played soccer collegiately, and Velez and Watkinson even played together for Bolyard just a handful of years ago.
“I think it’s a great variety,” Venice junior Kat Jordan said of her coaches. “It’s easy to relate to them, and I think they help us a lot.”
Just watching the coaches go to work at practice, it’s clear to see the Lady Indians respond to their coaches well.
Hilligoss, who essentially serves as the associate head coach, is vocal and no-nonsense. She helps lead practices and can be found yelling out instructions and providing necessary pep talks during Indians matches.
“Lynley always keeps us in shape and makes sure we’re working hard,” Venice senior Sydney Ayette said. “She’s great at motivating us.”
The Indians waste no time in practice, learning designed plays from Hilligoss and Velez off a dry-erase board before trying them out on the field, along with working on coordination and other drills.
Hilligoss had a successful career in soccer, working her way up from high school to Iowa State and eventually, a brief stint in professional soccer, before she suffered a career-ending back injury.
Following her injury, she moved down to Venice and it wasn’t long before she was working in soccer.
“I really just wanted to work with this group of girls and Gary,” Hilligoss said of accepting her coaching position last year. “I had heard a lot of great things about them. So I finally linked up with Gary through the soccer club here and he asked me last year to come on board as a staff member, and I was absolutely thrilled.
“This group of girls, this program, is just top notch.”
Velez, who was also hired last year, is fresh out of college after graduating from FGCU in the spring of 2017.
A former Indians defender, the return to Venice is especially meaningful for her.
“It’s a fulfilling feeling because I was literally in this same position as these girls just a few years ago,” Velez said. “I was right here. Coach Bolyard has coached me since I was 8 years old and I first stepped foot on a soccer field. It’s cool, it’s a very homey and comforting feeling.”
So far this season, despite a young defense, Venice has allowed just two goals through four games and has shut out its last three opponents.
New to the coaching staff this year is Watkinson, who played on the same Venice High team as Velez.
“Heather, the JV coach, and Yazmin both went through the Venice High soccer program and they also had Gary as their coach,” Ayette said. So they know what it’s like and it’s been great.”
Watkinson was offered a coaching position in Georgia after she graduated from Brewton-Parker earlier this year, but she thought that sports were in her past.
After playing soccer for years upon years, she felt as though it was time to give it a rest.
But her mind changed when Bolyard came calling to coach the junior varsity team.
So far, she’s wholeheartedly accepted the challenge and her new role with the Indians.
“It’s kind of funny,” Watkinson said. “I’m the youngest in my family, but I can speak to some of these girls as like an older sister, where I’ll say, ‘Hey, you need to clean this up,’ or ‘You need to do this better’ without seeing them get offended like I’m criticizing them. It’s cute. I love it.”
With Venice off to such a dominating start (25-2 goal differential), it’s hard to imagine where the Lady Indians might be without their three female coaches.
And while Venice’s early-season success on the field has been undeniable, it’s perhaps moreso the off-field coaching that has shaped the Lady Indians into such a formidable team.
“That’s what it is, is a mentorship,” Hilligoss said of her coaching position. “What these girls don’t realize is that I’ve been through the process, I’ve had my ups and downs, and I can relate to them.
“I really, truly can and I encourage them to come and talk to me about anything, whether it’s soccer-related or not. In today’s society with a lot of negativity going around, I truly believe being a positive mentor to them is a very good thing.”