DA AND DEAF NATIONAL TEAM DRIVE HOLLY HUNTER'S DUAL DEVELOPMENT

By Marc P. Serber

In the lead-up to the 2019 Spring Showcase, we're highlighting a number of stand-out stories across the Academy. Two environments are pushing Legends FC's Holly Hunter to reach her potential - her Academy club in Southern California and the Deaf Women's National Team. You can watch Holly and Legends take on Penn Fusion in a feature game on Saturday, April 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

You're in the middle of a soccer game with the ball at your feet, approaching the final third of the field.

The crowd boisterously urges you forward, the wind whistles across the grass, a teammate bellows at you about an opponent coming up on your right shoulder, the left winger screams for the ball to be sent to the far post and your coach barks instructions from the bench.

Can you picture it?

Now imagine you're in the same position, but you can't hear a single thing. Dead silence.

There's no crowd noise from which to garner energy. It's up to you to sense the pressure, find the runners and figure out what your coach and teammates are looking for in the run of play without any sort of verbal communication.

Imagine that you're 13-years-old experiencing that for the first time. On the same field as players triple your age, and they're not only veterans of playing this way, but they've won a number of world championships.

That's where Legends FC's Holly Hunter found herself two summers ago when she stepped into her first-ever training camp with the United States Deaf Women's National Team.

Hunter was born 100% deaf, but with the help of cochlear implants (in her words: "basically a computer chip in your head that hears for you") and intense therapy for the first five years of her life learning how to hear and speak, the Temecula, Calif. native has grown into a Youth National Team-caliber player.

For Legends FC U-16/17, Hunter plays as an outside back that bombs forward at every opportunity in the hopes of getting behind the opponent's back-line from out wide. Head coach John King also deploys her as a forward.

Academy Director Keven Boyd believes that it's Hunter's creativity on the ball that makes her stand out. Beyond that, he admires her ability to lead by example.

"Her ability to beat people in tight spaces and beat people going to goal, whether it's coming out of the wide-back position or whether it's all the way up into the 18 is something that makes her special," Boyd said.

"Her intensity and her focus is great. There's never a session that she shows up where she's not intent on what she's trying to do and focused on getting better. It's probably the trait that I like the best about her- when we get to the training field is there is never a moment off for her."

Those qualities caught the attention of Deaf Women's National Team Head Coach Amy Griffin when she saw Hunter at a Showcase event a few years back. She saw enough to invite her to a training camp.

"The age range varies," Griffin said. "We've had players in our pool as young as 12 and as old as 40. We've had players that have played semi-pro and on high-level Division 1 soccer teams while some players don't have the opportunity for regular formal programming."

Though the Deaf WNTT draws from an enormous variety of soccer backgrounds and usually holds just two training camps a year, the team has never lost an international match. The U.S. Women's Deaf National Team has won all three World Deaf Football Championships (most recently in 2016) and every Deaflympic Gold Medal since the team began first entered the competition in 2005.

"We're a team of women and a team of winners and I think the story needs to be told," Griffin said in a recent interview. "It has to be one of the winningest teams in U.S. history and not enough people know about it."

Since many of the players can hear with the help of cochlear implants, not everyone on the team knows sign language. Therefore, learning to communicate is one of the biggest obstacles, especially because the rules of deaf soccer mandate that all devices must be taken off before the players step on the field.

"It was crazy not wearing my implants on the field," Holly said. "I didn't know how to communicate. I felt like I was ridiculous on the field, because I was doing jumping jacks asking for the ball."

Other than to sleep or shower, Hunter never takes off her implants (though she admits that when she was little she would take them out when she didn't want to listen to her parents). Therefore, it was an enormous challenge to find the best way to connect with her teammates on the field.

"I had to figure out a way to communicate without saying stuff and it was just really different," Hunter said. "But as soon as the camp went on I just got used to it. I was like, 'Ok, this is how I communicate, this is how I get this one's attention, this is how I get her attention.' It just all came together at the end."

"It's easier when you have your hearing on because you can get all your senses in there. But with the Deaf WNT, I think it's great because it kind of throws in that sixth sense. You're just like, 'Okay, I feel where the pressure is.' All your other senses heighten. I think it's different, but I've learned to adapt to it."

Now at five camps in with the Deaf WNT, Hunter feels like a veteran, though she's still only 15. As one of the youngest players, she looks up to those who have already taken home gold medals. Hunter finds inspiration in their accomplishments and takes the time to learn from their lives and experiences.

In the Deaf WNT, Hunter has found a group that she can relate to as well as a group of role models. And even at her young age, Hunter already feels the responsibility for herself to be a role model.

Whenever the Deaf WNT holds a training camp, they often host it in areas with a high deaf population and devote a day to give back to the community that hosted them. During the team's most-recent camp, Hunter met a little boy named Milo.

"He had these little implants and he was like, 'Look! I'm just like you!' He looks up to us, like- 'I can be the next Deaflympic player!'" Hunter said. "I think it's amazing that there's other people in this world that have the same thing I do. They go through the same challenges. I can look up to my role models and also be a role model."

Hunter will look to cement her spot on the Deaf WNT as the next Deaflympics looms two years away (The U.S. did not attend in 2017 because of the political situation in Turkey, the host country). For the time being, playing in the Development Academy with Legends and the U.S. Deaf Women's National Team go hand-in-hand.

Last year, Hunter's forays down the flank propelled the Legends U-15's to the Academy Championship Final in the inaugural season of the Girl's Academy. Now with the U-17's, Hunter is a major reason Legends FC enters this weekend's Spring Showcase as the top team in a stacked Southwest Division with a record of 20-2-2. Across the Academy, only two teams have better records.

Hunter trains intensely four nights a week in the world-class environment that Boyd and King have created in Chino, Calif. That preparation means that when Hunter goes into camp with the Deaf WNT, she's usually one of the fittest and technically sharpest players in the pool.

When in camp, Hunter not only gets to learn from two U.S. Soccer Women's National Team legends and renowned coaches in Griffin and assistant Joy Fawcett, but she also gets the benefit of competition against full-grown women. For Hunter, the Deaf WNT environment brings an increased speed of play and challenges her with new and unique problems to solve on the field- all experiences that will help her excel when she returns to her club.

In Griffin's eyes, it's the perfect platform.

"Being with the Deaf WNT in an environment where you have a chance to win a World Cup at this age, understanding what that pressure is that's going to be placed on her shoulders here is an incredible opportunity," Griffin said. "If everything pans out, these environments would help anyone. It's going to be finding if Holly's a player that will be able to soak it all in, because it will be a great experience."

Hunter, Legends FC's buccaneering wing-back already has a zen-like approach to deal with the "pressure" Griffin talks about.

"In soccer, the game is always changing," Hunter said. "So, I'll just adapt to whatever I need to do to get it done."