WESLEY CHAPEL — Dayton Wetherby couldn’t get away from the attention.
Her team was on TV news and commercials. Her face was on the front page of the sports section. Thousands of fans packed the stadium.
A friend said on Twitter that Wetherby had become Hannah Montana famous.
“I’m flipping through channels, and there’s me and my team,” Wetherby said. “I’m like, ‘What is this?’ ”
This was her life for five weeks as the starting goalkeeper for the U-20 Panamanian national soccer team.
The Wiregrass Ranch junior was part of the host nation’s historic run in this month’s CONCACAF tournament in Panama. She accomplished that feat despite speaking little Spanish and joining the team a few weeks before the country played on one of its biggest stages.
The 17-year-old Wetherby was born in America and has lived in Florida for most of her life. But her mother was born in Panama and her family has strong ties there. Wetherby visited the Central American country of 3.5 million people three times growing up. She loved eating empanadas with her mom’s friends in Orlando.
In January, a family friend said Panama’s U-20 team needed a goalkeeper, so Wetherby sent the national team coaches her highlights. They called and wanted her to fly down the next day.
Wetherby, who gained dual citizenship, thought she’d be the only keeper on the field. She joined seven others vying for two roster spots.
“You had to train hard because you didn’t know when the next cut was going to be,” Wetherby said.
The introduction was rough.
After traveling all day and eating almost nothing, Wetherby went straight from the airport to an afternoon practice in the dry, 97-degree heat. She knew enough Spanish to recite colors and a few basic phrases but not enough to understand tactical strategies or technical instructions. She had to rely on her coaches’ body language and demonstrations during practice.
“It was a learning thing and trying to adapt and not get too frustrated with the situation,” Wetherby said.
Wetherby spent her free time exploring the country and studying so she wouldn’t be too far behind when she returned to class Wednesday. She made the team’s final roster cut last month, which didn’t surprise Wiregrass Ranch coach Erin Dodd.
Wetherby, who worked with the Olympic Development Program two years ago, finished her junior year with 78 saves and 11 shutouts for the Bulls. The second-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference player orally committed to Navy after Wiregrass’ 17-5 season.
Dodd said she knew immediately after meeting Wetherby in seventh grade that her work ethic and leadership could take her far.
“None of that has changed,” Dodd said.
Dodd watched online as Wetherby followed the team captain onto the pristine field in front of a blaring band and roaring fans at the 32,000-seat Estadio Rommel Fernandez. Wetherby helped Panama beat Cuba and Guatemala to qualify for its first CONCACAF semifinal.
With a spot in the final four secure, Wetherby rested the next game — a 6-0 loss to the United States.
“So weird,” Wetherby said. “You’re sitting there. I’m a dual citizen, but I have a Panamanian jersey on. I have to play as a Panamanian. I have to cheer as a Panamanian. It was weird.”
With Panama one victory from qualifying for the World Cup, the soccer-crazed nation erupted. The team’s success was national news. Wetherby gained 1,000 Twitter followers overnight.
The stadium buzzed during Friday’s semifinal, but the bigger, more physical Canadians rolled to a 6-0 victory. Mexico throttled Panama 5-0 Sunday to end its World Cup hopes.
But Panama stayed upbeat. When Wetherby left the country to head home Tuesday, a man at the airport showed her a picture of her on his cell phone. Her almost 2,000 Twitter followers remain active.
“They’re still there,” Wetherby said. “They still tweet me every morning, telling me to come back to Panama.”
And Wetherby will go back. She wants to try out for the national team in two years and plans to bring gifts when she returns on a family vacation in December.
After seeing some of the country’s poverty, she hopes to start a charity to provide shoes for children. One of her teammates was a 14-year-old prodigy with a Nike sponsorship but no home.
“These girls are lucky if they have cleats,” Wetherby said.
Wetherby said she gained gratitude and humility from her time in Panama. The lesson continued back home. Teachers and classmates congratulated her when she returned to school Wednesday, but that doesn’t compare to the surprise party her family planned when she returned Tuesday night. Her friends filled her bedroom. Her favorite foods sat on the kitchen table.
Wetherby had eaten her fill of empanadas. She was ready for some pizza and lemonade.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.