McKeel girls soccer coach Jacob Sweeney knew he had something special when Asha Zuniga began playing for McKeel. When she was a freshman, he had her shoot a penalty kick against Berkeley Prep in the regional quarterfinals with the game on the line.

For Zuniga, who made the shot, it was an early highlight of her high school career as it allowed the the Wildcats to advance past the regional quarterfinals for the first time.

Sweeney’s first impressions weren’t wrong. Zuniga, even in her first year on varsity as an eighth-grader, has been one of the top midfielders in the county and has been a top player each year since, emerging as a Divison-I college prospect. She will sign this week with Alabama-Birmingham but still has goals for her final high school season.

Soccer has always been in her blood. She began playing organized soccer when she was 4 but was around the game even earlier because she liked hanging out with her older brother who played. She started playing for her father in rec league then started playing club soccer.

Zuniga first showed up on Sweeney’s radar when he held a camp that elementary school players at McKeel attended with Zuniga being one of them. She then played junior varsity at McKeel beginning as a sixth-grader and was on varsity as an eighth-grader.

Where ever she played, Zuniga always looked more advanced than the players around her.

“She plays so confidently,” Sweeney said. “There’s this aura that comes off her when she’s out there. She plays with a passion that a lot of the girls don’t have. She just loves to be out there. She loves to work, she loves to play, she buys in. She’s just been a pleasure to have.”

Sweeney saw Zuniga as a project. Because of her skill and ability, he wanted to make sure he did everything possible to help make sure she fully developed as a player. It’s why he gave that penalty shot to her.

“I didn’t care if she hit it or not, she needed the experience,” he said. “She needed the experience of playing under pressure, having the entire weight of the team on her back and hitting that goal. That’s the kind of things I wanted to give her so she would grow into the responsibility she would be carrying the next few years.”

Playing for various teams has helped her grow on the field and has given her experience at various positions. She plays center back for the Olympic Development Program, plays center-mid for high school and club and has also played center forward for club.

“I like center-mid the best,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my strongest position. I feel like center back is, but I enjoy center-mid more. There’s more touches on the ball.”

For McKeel, Zuniga teams with Makayla Peddycoart at center-mid. They’ll be in their third year together, and it’s a combination that Sweeney put together as soon as he saw Peddycoart and wants to do more with them this year.

At center-mid, Zuniga is a playmaker with great vision. She can set up teammates or score herself. Last season, she led the Wildcats with 22 goals but also had 27 assists.

Zuniga’s role on the team extends to more than production, however.

“Getting that experience here and having to shoulder the responsibility of being a leader on the field even as an eighth-grader, I think, really helped her grow,” Sweeney said. “She’s been a captain for three years just because of her ability to lead. That’s one of her better qualities too. She’s a gifted leader.”

Alabama-Birmingham took notice of Zuniga last December when she was playing in a showcase tournament in North Carolina. She visited the school in January — she also visted Tampa and Troy — and immediately knew that’s where she wanted to go. She committed within a week of her visit. First, however, she wants to have a memorable senior season and make up for last year’s disappointment when Fort Meade upset McKeel in the district championship game.

“Districts last year was definitely rough,” she said. “We weren’t expected to go in and kill them, but we felt we were the stronger team.”

The Wildcats controlled the action, but Fort Meade jumped on McKeel for a 2-0 lead and held on for a 2-1 win.

“That was hard to walk away from,” she said. "So going into this year, that’s a big year. We have to redeem ourselves. I think for everyone on the team, it hit everyone in a soft spot, so going into this year we play Fort Meade (early) and we need to make a statement.”

When Zuniga graduates, she’ll take pride in not just what she accomplished individually at McKeel but also how the program has developed.

“I think I’ve grown, not just by myself but with the team,” she said. “We’ve grown together, so I feel as I’ve grown, the team has grown. I see younger girls come up and they’re so much better than I was when I was in eighth grade, so it’s growing all around me, which has made me better.”