Prep Soccer

Fate put Jose Fajardo in charge of Iowa City High soccer

HS journalism: Injuries prevented him from starring in Spain, but sport stayed in his blood

Iowa City High head coach Jose Michel Fajardo talks to his players after the Little Hawks lost to West Des Moines Valley in the 2016 Class 3A state championship game at the Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
Iowa City High head coach Jose Michel Fajardo talks to his players after the Little Hawks lost to West Des Moines Valley in the 2016 Class 3A state championship game at the Cownie Soccer Complex in Des Moines. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Fate has a funny way of surprising people. Just ask City High boys’ soccer coach Jose Fajardo.

Growing up in Seville, Spain, Fajardo was considered one of the best youth soccer players in the country. But when a string of leg injuries resulted in 13 surgeries and derailed his career, he decided it was time for a change.

“I wanted to start a new adventure away from the pressures of soccer,” Fajardo said. “A new life, a new career, something away from soccer and from the stress of being who I was.”

Fajardo remembered a trip he’d taken to the United States to see a medical specialist in Colorado. On the trip he’d stopped to see relatives in Iowa City. Fajardo loved what he saw and dreamed of going back to the U.S. someday. So when it became clear his playing days were over, he was off to start a new life in Iowa City, free from the stress of soccer.

Or so he thought.

“Soccer is in my blood, and God always had it in His book of destiny for me,” Fajardo said. “So somehow I got back into soccer, now coaching, and Iowa City has always treated me like a King (ever since).”

In 1998, the former youth circuit phenom from Seville who’d never heard the word “Hawkeye” became the City High girls’ soccer coach. What’s happened since has been extraordinary.

In his six seasons with the girls’ team, Fajardo lead the program to a 108-14 record and six consecutive Mississippi Valley Conference championships. By 2003, the girls had made three straight state tournament appearances and Fajardo was a two-time MVC Coach of the Year.

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His ability to quickly rebuild made him the clear choice when the boys’ job opened up in 2004.

Since taking over the boys’ team, Fajardo’s Little Hawks have had a 70 percent winning percentage. City High has made the state tournament eight years in a row, the longest active streak in the state. His teams have been state title contenders, finishing runner-up three times in that eight-year span, including the 2016 team that completed the only undefeated regular-season in school history before falling in the title match.

What has allowed Fajardo to maintain that level of success?

“My players, my coaching staff, our families and our administrators,” Fajardo said. “We practice more and longer than anyone in the state ... We practice seven days a week, and we don’t practice eight only because there are not eight days in the week ... (I’m grateful) everyone has allowed me to do that and sacrificed so much of their personal time.”

Fajardo emphasized his players’ dedication has been critical to the program’s success.

“We have never had the so-called stars that other teams have,” he said. “We always have to work super hard to make our players into ‘A’ players, but I haven’t heard in 15 years one single time anyone saying ‘why are we practicing again? Why are we here so many hours?’

“Those are the true stars for me. Those are the ones who deserve that I do my best to take them where they truly belong, and that is what motivates me every day to fight and fight to make sure that they always stay up there.”

Going into this season, Fajardo knew his player-first philosophy would be tested. City returns only one starter from last year’s team, and five freshmen play with the varsity squad.

So far, the Little Hawks are keeping the tradition of retooling and reloading alive. They shot out to a top-five ranking after beating a highly ranked Ankeny team in their second game of the season before dropping a close match to Iowa City West. Still, the Little Hawks remain ranked in the Top 10 and see themselves as contenders to win the MVC Mississippi division.

Fajardo believes the team’s youth is no reason to back down.

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“We are as good as we want to be, and when we don’t want it enough we are as vulnerable as anyone can be,” Fajardo said. “It is my job to keep reminding these kids of the importance of feeling comfortable, but never too comfortable.”

Fajardo likes what he’s seen from this year’s group, and now it’s up to him work out the kinks as they move further into the season.

“This is not easy,” Fajardo said. “But we have a created a culture of winning so I need to do all the experimenting while keeping the tradition alive, and this makes it even harder. When you try to win games while experimenting and when you are trying to not make mistakes, sometimes you are going to fail and fail big. I recognize this and I take full responsibility for it. But I see a lot of hard work at practice, players pushing others to be better, younger players hungry for success. I see good people, I see many things that make think that this year could be a special one.”

Part of that process is learning from mistakes. Fajardo was disappointed in his team’s hard-fought, 1-0, loss to West, but said the game was a good learning experience.

“This year our inexperience (was our undoing), made us panic, made us lose our identity and at the end the final score should not have be different than what it was,” Fajardo said. “Still, even after having our worst day, we succeeded in so many aspects, we grew, we never gave up, and we were strong. Though we did commit stupid faults that got us out of the game, there are so many positives after this game as well.

“I do not like losing, ever, but winning this game would have (felt like) reaching the goal of the season for a few of my players, so I hope now they have a new goal and that losing this game truly help us to overcome the fears next time.”

Fajardo doesn’t like to hear too much about his program’s historic run. He wants his team to know the ultimate prize, a state title, still is out there.

“By the way, we have been there eight years in a row, but we have not won a state championship yet, so we have no right to feel like we have accomplished anything yet,” he said. “The team knows it, and I know it, and we are OK with it.”

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Growing up in Seville, Fajardo never imagined he’d be at the helm an American high school soccer team. But fate works in mysterious ways. It brought City High soccer its captain. Someday it may bring Fajardo his state title. Wherever it takes him next, Fajardo seems most grateful for the faith his players have put in him.

“I owe (everything) to my players and City High owes everything to these kids as well,” he said. “They are the ones who have made us all successful and proud and winners consistently ... I have always tried to return that treatment by giving all the hundreds and hundreds of players that I have coached the best of me.”

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