By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Next year, 23 athletes will try to capture the Women’s Asian Cup for the Philippine national soccer team. Cat Barnekow hopes to be among the women in the tournament for players 22 or younger. If so, she will be the most unlikely player on the team.
Until November, Barnekow had never considered trying out for the the squad — and it had never considered her.
“Cat was an accidental addition to the team,” Philippine national coach Ernie Nierras wrote in an email from Manila. “I actually invited Nitang Jones (Cat’s teammate from UNCG).
Unfortunately Nitang was injured at that time. I spoke to Cat’s UNCG coach, and he was the one who said that he might have another Filipino-American (Fil-Am) player. True enough, Cat Barnekow’s mom is Filipina.”
OK, a little background: UNCG is the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the distant school where Barnekow wound up playing soccer after starring at Santa Rosa High and, for one year, at Santa Rosa JC. She was a three-time All-Southern Conference pick at various positions, despite sitting out her entire junior season with a knee injury. Barnekow made the first team at forward as a senior co-captain, and is tied for fifth on the school’s all-time list with 23 career assists.
“It was a great experience, just the competitive environment,” Barnekow said. “I felt so fortunate and so amazed to play against teams like Stanford, and Santa Clara, and Wake Forest, Chapel Hill — all these schools. I got to test myself: How do I compare?”
Barnekow recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in kinesiology, and is back home in Santa Rosa looking for work.
At the same time, she has her eye on the national team playing eight time zones away. The team is known as the Malditas, which translates roughly to “feisty girls.”
Barnekow, 22, was taken aback when UNC Greensboro coach Steve Nugent told her the Philippine Football Federation wanted to offer her a tryout. But she was eager to extend her soccer days, so she flew to Los Angeles for a one-week camp at Cal State Fullerton, followed by a tournament.
Barnekow’s mother, Florencia, is of Filipino descent, but Cat says she did not identify strongly with the culture growing up. Other than a couple standards like chicken adobo and lumpia, Florencia didn’t cook much Filipino food. Cat does not speak Tagalog, and expected some language barriers when she met the other women trying out, plus several active members of the national team who made the trip to Southern California.
To her surprise, Barnekow discovered that even most of the national team members grew up in the United States or Canada. Still, the camp wound up being an educational opportunity for the Santa Rosa native.
“To be honest, I was probably one of the whitest people on the team in terms of culturally,” Barnekow said. “My mom moved here when she was about 5 and kind of distanced herself from the culture. So the majority of my life, I was very Americanized.”
Barnekow appreciated learning more about the Philippines — the music, the weather, the stories of complete strangers meeting on the road and separating 10 minutes later feeling as if they had been lifelong friends. The team had Thanksgiving dinner at Nierras’ mother’s house, and Barnekow ate more cartilage than she was accustomed to, but was open to the experience.
“Even though I got teased a little, it was kind of nice to be more exposed and be around so many Filipinos,” she said.
The level of competition in Fullerton was quite familiar to Barnekow — not surprising when you consider that most of the other players, like Barnekow, were from mid-level Division I soccer programs. She did notice one distinction: the American players tended to be a little rougher than the Philippine nationals.
Of course, physicality has never been a problem for Barnekow.
“My first impression of Cat can be described in one word or name … TAZ,” Nierras wrote. “I started calling her that after a few days. Her aggressiveness, tenacity and speed reminds me of the cartoon character, Tasmanian Devil! As sweet as she looks, she is very explosive on the field. She understood my system, and was able to adjust to our plays, just like the other girls.”
Nierras said he naturally bonded with Barnekow. They share a mindset, a lack of height — Barnekow is 5-foot-2 — and a birthday. Both were born Sept. 24.
After a weeklong camp, the Malditas played in a tournament that included several club teams. Barnekow started at right center-back, and she began the first game with the national team’s traditional call-and-response. Barnekow yelled “Malditas,” and the team shot back “Laban!” which means “Fight!”
Barnekow would like to keep fighting with the team, especially considering the Asian Cup is a qualifier for the World Cup. First she must file paperwork to obtain dual citizenship and, of course, get invited to the national camp in May. Her chances look good.
“I will be selecting 23 players for the AFC Asian Cup this coming May 2013,” Nierras said. “I am sure Cat will be one of them.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.