Apr. 25—LAS VEGAS, N.M.
At a certain point, the nerves simply fade and muscle memory kicks in.
It’s in that exact moment that the realization of kicking a football is a lot simpler than what she usually does.
“There’s not any running involved, so when you’re just standing there getting ready to kick, it’s sort of easy to focus,” said Valerie Baca, a diminutive 5-foot-4 sophomore who made history by kicking a pair of extra points in Friday night’s 62-26 spring football game between New Mexico Highlands and visiting Fort Lewis.
Baca became the first woman to suit up for NMHU’s football team, as well as the first woman to play for a New Mexico college program since Katie Hnida played (and hit two extra points) for the University of New Mexico from 2002-04.
At least 20 women have competed at various levels of college ball since Liz Heaston broke the barrier and played at NAIA Willamette in 1997.
Baca admits she never set out to blaze a trail on the football field.
“My parents never really watched it, and my brother played a little when he was younger, but I never thought about playing,” Baca said. “I wasn’t trying to set an example or anything. It’s just something that happened.”
The story behind Baca’s road to the turf field at Highlands’ Sanchez Family Stadium begins with logistics. Recruited to Highlands as a woman’s soccer player in the fall out of Fresno City College, she has still never played a game in a Cowgirls uniform to the coronavirus pandemic. It shut down NMHU’s 2020 season in the fall, and the team elected not to play a truncated spring season in 2021.
She decided to move on campus this semester and join the Cowgirls for spring workouts, attending classes virtually and doing whatever she could to keep busy.
When Highlands’ special teams situation got dicey after its top kickers decided to stay home this semester, Cowboys football coach Josh Kirkland picked up the phone and called the school’s soccer coach, Bianca Contreras. He asked if any of her players were willing to have an impromptu tryout.
Contreras sent him three players. Baca won the audition and was invited, in a manner of speaking, to give football a try.
“I’ll hand it to her,” said Highlands quarterback Ramone Atkins. “She was out there every day at 6 in the morning just like the rest of us. She’d be out there on the field doing her job just like everyone else. It was great to see.”
In truth, it wasn’t quite that poetic. Several times, Baca said she wasn’t sure when Kirkland wanted her there, so she just sort of followed the crowd when it was time.
“Half the time, I didn’t really know when they had their practices, so I’d just kind of see some of the football guys walking to the field and I was, like, ‘OK, I’m guessing they’re doing something so I guess I’ll just show up, too,’ ” Baca said. “It was a little hectic, but it was cool. I enjoyed being around the team, everyone was very nice. I found out that I like the atmosphere of football.”
Given her size, Kirkland had a hard time finding a uniform that fit. She wore a purple No. 21 jersey for Friday’s game only because it was the smallest one they had.
“Yeah, it’s a weird thing wearing a football uniform,” Baca said. “I never really thought about that before, but you hear the sound of the pads bouncing around when you run and the helmet is kind of heavy. The pants were the only thing that really fit right, but then there’s all those pads and stuff. It’s definitely not something I was ready for.”
Baca didn’t get her chance until the fourth quarter when a touchdown pushed NMHU’s lead to 54-19 early in the fourth quarter. One of the assistant coaches sent her onto the field for the PAT.
“I don’t remember running in there but, yeah, I had a lot of nerves,” she said. “I think that’s when I just took a deep breath and said it’s something I do all the time in soccer. It’s just kicking a ball, just a different shape.”
Her kick sailed through the uprights, sending the sideline into a swell of celebration. Teammates ran to her side and gave her the celebratory moment worthy of such an historic event. A few minutes later, the Cowboys scored again, giving her a second opportunity and, like the first, it was picture perfect.
“I’d gone as far back as the 20 in practice so I knew I could get it there, no problem,” Baca said.
A native of Porterville, Calif., in the southern portion of San Joaquin Valley near the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Baca said her entire family watched the game online. When she checked her phone afterward, she’d been bombarded with messages and calls, including her parents. She said the idea of her kicking footballs instead of the fútbol her family preferred came with just one request: Don’t get hurt.
Atkins said her teammates vowed to protect her, a sentiment echoed by Kirkland.
“Typically after a touchdown, I’m busy talking to my offense, but when she went out there I had to watch,” Kirkland said. “Man, I’m just so proud of her. Whether she made it or missed it didn’t matter. Just watching her out there made me so gosh dang happy for her. What a great moment.”
So what, then, does a college co-ed do to celebrate an unprecedented moment in Highlands football? Paint the town, perhaps? Stay up till dawn, maybe?
“I just watched a couple movies with my friends, that’s it,” Baca said.
Life will eventually return to normal for her and the NMHU football and soccer programs. When fall classes resume in August, Baca will rejoin the Cowgirls soccer team and do what she was recruited for while the football team will get its scholarship kickers back and set sail on a 2021 season.
On an April night in Las Vegas, however, all of it was put on hold for a wide-eyed kicker who etched her own name into the history books. The telltale sign of her accomplishment came moments after the final gun when, as she walked around the field talking to her teammates, a little girl ran up to her to give her a high-five.
“This cute little kid just wanted to say hello,” Baca said. “It made me think that girls need to know that they can do anything they want. If they want to play football or do whatever, nothing should stop them. I mean, if I help change some girls’ minds and maybe make them happy, it’s all worth it.”