For the first time ever Arizona Soccer Club (AZSC) is sending a team to the US Youth Soccer National Championships, which begin Tuesday, July 19 on ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando. AZSC’s 2009 (under-13) girls team features seven players from Queen Creek and they are the club’s first team to win regionals in its 20-year history.
While many of the players have been together since they began playing soccer, this is the team’s first season under coach Raiff Gwinnett, AZSC’s girls director of coaching. To get to nationals the girls had to win Arizona’s State Cup and then the USYS Far West Regional Championships that took place in Boise, Idaho.
Going into State Cup the team only had 11 players available to play, due to injuries and eligibility issues with newer players. After losing the first game, the team bounced back going undefeated for the rest of the tournament culminating in a 3-0 win in the final, a game which Gwinnett said could have been 10-0.
“If we go back to four or five months ago I don't think that was even a thought, you know. Our whole goal probably was just to get to state because we always knew we had a pretty good chance of getting at least to the state (competition),” said Leon Wood, whose daughter is the team’s goal keeper. “So, I think once we got past state it's almost like, wow, your next deal is regionals and, again, wasn't really expecting to get through the regionals. Somehow coach was able to get something with this team. Get them to click, and next thing you know we're headed to the nationals. I think the girls have now figured it out.”
Any team that gets a new coach is likely to go through some growing pains, but the ’09 AZSC (under-13) girls hit their stride at the perfect time and have gone undefeated in the postseason championships since losing their first State Cup game.
“When I first started, we were a million, million miles behind everybody. We were not close to anybody. You know, it took some time to reform the team in terms of playing in a slightly different way,” Gwinnett said. “We have some great athletes, some great kids and to be honest…we really struggled at the start and over the course of the season, we've just gotten better, better and better. So, honestly, we really weren't the best to begin with, but the kids have just progressed really nicely.”
After winning State Cup, the team headed north for the Far West Regional Championships which brought together the best team from every state in the West.
The team wasn’t sure what to expect at regionals, as they played teams they’d never seen before from as far away as Hawaii and Washington. They won their first three games, scoring 11 goals while only conceding one, which put them into the quarter-finals. Ahead of the quarter-finals the team took advantage of the location and went rafting together, which Gwinnett said was a great team bonding experience ahead of the final games.
At halftime of the quarter-final the girls found themselves down 1-0, putting their hopes of a regional championship in jeopardy, but they battled back in the second half and scored two goals to secure a spot in the semis. They would narrowly win that game 1-0 to give them a shot at the Far West Regional Championship.
In the final, the AZSC girls came up against Las Vegas Surf, who had beaten them at the beginning of the season.
“We played them in September and we lost 10-2 in Desert Conference. I'd only just got my hands on the team, so you know, we'd lost 10-2 and then we ended up beating them 2-1 (in the final),” Gwinnett said. “That was a massive well done to the girls for turning that deficit from 10-2 to winning 2-1 and I just think that sums that team up. It's just hard work, determination and you know collectively, kids being together all the time has really kind of shown that through. And yeah, it's been fantastic.”
That win confirmed AZSC girls as the best team at their age in the Western United States. It also made them the first ever team from Arizona Soccer Club to win a regional championship. They’ll now be representing the West as they prepare to play on the national stage.
“I don't think it will sink in to them until they get there. I think they're very excited right now…they created club history. No Arizona Soccer (Club) team in 20 years has ever won regionals,” Gwinnett said. “So no matter what happens in the next 10, 20 years of their life, this is something they'll always remember and something they can always talk about. I think the excitement of going, and just being able to compete at Nationals is so exciting for them and they can't wait, they're itching to go.”
Now the girls will head to Florida to compete against the toughest competition they have faced yet. They’ll be playing winners of the other three regions which feature teams from Kansas, Texas and New York. The team has grown a lot since the start of the season and those around them believe they’re ready for the challenge.
“I've noticed from when they were seven to where they are and how much, you know, the transition of growth these girls have had. I mean, I can remember, yeah we were okay for a group of (7 year olds) and stuff. But you really start to see the growth when every now and then we would scrimmage against the older girls or older boys and then you can kind of see ‘oh, wow,’ I didn't know that she could do that.” Wood said. “I've seen the growth in mentality just on a maturity level, where they were at the start of this past season and then where they are now.”
As the moment has gotten bigger the team’s mentality seems to grow with it. Ahead of the biggest games of these girls’ careers Gwinnett said, of course the girls are nervous, but they just have to go back to what they’ve been doing all postseason, focus on playing their game and enjoying the moment.
“Yeah, it's the same as we went into regionals. You know, just listen, compete, work hard and have fun. Play with a smile on your face,” Gwinnett said. “And if you can play with a smile on your face and enjoy the moment, then that's all I can ever ask them.”