PHARR -- Every year at this time, half the district coaches prepare for the soccer playoffs and half are forced to go through the reconciliation, the rationalizing, the plans for next season. Though Coach Robert Garcia and the Lady Jags of Econ have been eliminated from the race for a few weeks, and have thus begun to look to the future, they came out and competed hard, nonetheless.

The girls were happy campers on a breezy and warm day Friday, giggling through warmups and casting an occasional eye toward the boys’ game finishing up on the pitch. Their positive attitude has weathered the storm, illustrating that having fun while competing is the way to go.

At the center of the team’s effort this year, and the last four, has been Nicole Wilke, a steady performer whose career will come to an end Tuesday against Edinburg North. She has had to endure a difficult senior season, from multiple, narrow losses to a shocking brawl against Harlingen South a few weeks ago in which she was slugged by one of the Lady Hawks.

But the gritty defender is no victim. In fact, she and the other seniors on the club have figured out how best to deal with yet another losing season. Candy Loera, Mariah Guerra, and Aleida Paz will also play their last game Tuesday.

“We sat down and talked it about before we began the year,” said the four-year starter who has also played some forward for the program. “With so many girls who were new and green, it was going to be tough, but the feeling was, let’s stay positive and have fun, help the new people learn all they can, and maybe leave the program in better shape next season.”

That sort of logic is hard to beat, and makes perfect sense coming from a top-shelf student who is probably headed to Texas A&M next year to begin another long trek, this one not to the opposing goal but to medical school. Wilke has always been the type of gal to work hard and not complain or malinger. So when she says the seniors opted for the leadership role, one believes it.

“Oh, we could have been on their butts the whole time, you know, like, ‘Do this, do that, you’re not doing it right!’” she said, exaggerating slightly for effect. “But we wanted to be teaching them things, gradually. And I’m glad we did. We still came out here today and played hard. The girls who are here, they haven’t quit on the field for a minute, they play hard all the time.”

Garcia is the type of coach who gets the most of what he has, and has a sardonic wit to boot. He is a bit weary of the season but has always praised his standout senior for her hustle. This year, with a slimmed down and hardened physique, Wilke has been a consistent bright spot in an otherwise disheartening year, contributing with all-star caliber play on defense or at forward.

“I have always loved soccer, a lot,” she smiled, after the Lady Jags lost 3-0 to the Lady Raiders. “Tuesday is my last game and I am going to miss all of this.”

But there will be another Wilke to carry on the fight in 2012, as Amanda, a sophomore, has been a bit player this season. The younger sister is physically imposing, three inches taller than Nicole and very stout.

“She’s learning footwork and working on her speed,” said the soon-to-be graduated senior, who’s always had solid support from her family at all the Jag games. “I think she can be pretty good next year. All these girls, we have so many coming back next year. Maybe they can take some of the things we have tried to show them and go with it.”

Though she’s gone four years without a winning season, Wilke has maintained a sunny disposition along with her dogged pursuit of opposing offensive players.

“The seniors wanted to make this a fun year for everyone,” she noted. “And I think we have been successful, I mean, having fun is really what it’s all about in the end.”

Along the way, she has been the personification of a good teammate, helpful and patient, solid and indefatigable. If Garcia can find a few such rare gems among the returning cast, he will be satisfied.

NOTES: One of the kids who will be back next year is goalkeeper Jocelyn Infante, a sophomore with catlike quickness who made a number of sweet diving saves against Pharr North. She shows great potential as a net-minder.