ECNL U-15: Wash. Premier outlasts Minn. Thunder Academy to take National Flight B title
By Jimmy LaRoue
Waukegan, Ill.–In a match that featured numerous ebbs and flows, an eight-minute injury stoppage and a disputed penalty kick, Washington Premier took the ECNL Flight B National Championship over Minnesota Thunder Academy on Tuesday.
After playing to a 2-2 tie during regulation and neither team scoring during overtime, Washington Premier prevailed 4-3 in penalties, but not without some worrisome moments and some penalty kick drama.
“It feels so amazing just to win this,” said Washington Premier forward Jenn Oak. “I’m so proud of all the girls on our team for fighting and winning this thing.”
Midway through the second half, Thunder forward Sophie Babo and Premier’s Lauren Swinney collided heads while going for a 50/50 ball, with both staying down for several minutes and leaving the game. Babo, with a cut above her eye, returned later in the match, while Swinney, did not, though she was well enough to celebrate the win with her teammates.
“The collision obviously disrupted the rhythm of the game a little bit. … It was hard for us to get going again, and it seemed to help them more than it did us,” said Premier coach Seth Spidahl. “But it was a battle. It was a day-three soccer game where it wasn’t really a clean, pretty game. It was a game about work rate and guts and who wanted it more, and that’s sometimes what day three soccer comes down to. Both teams were working very hard, were tired. It was a very even game and it’s probably the right thing for it to come down to penalties.”
The strange sequence in penalties came in the third round when Washington Premier goalkeeper Lauren Mercuri appeared to have saved the penalty taken by the Thunder’s Emily Heslin. However, the referee on the endline, after a split-second hesitation, ruled that the whole ball had crossed the whole goal line.
“You’ll have to explain that one to me on the laws of physics, how it bounces over the line and comes back out,” Spidahl said.
But after Premier had taken a 4-3 lead going into the fifth round of penalties, there was no dispute about Mercuri’s final save, which gave her team the title.
“I was nervous about the penalties, because we haven’t been in a shootout all year,” Spidahl said. “I didn’t know how we were going to react to the pressure.”
He had no need to worry, however.
All four of Washington Premier’s penalty takers converted their kicks from the spot, while the Thunder missed two, including the one Mercuri saved at the end.
“I was really proud of their poise, because they could have panicked, not having gone through it before, but this team doesn’t really get nervous,” Spidahl said. “They are pretty loose, and they work and no occasion is really too big for them.”
Oak opened the scoring for Premier, taking a long ball played to her and, with a defender draping her, calmly powered a 16-yard left-footed shot past Thunder goalkeeper Sisley Ng.
“I was like, ‘I can’t miss this,’” Oak said. “I was just fighting through the girl and I saw the goalie come so I just took the left-footed shot and it went right over her.”
The Thunder’s Babo leveled the match just before halftime, heading in a free kick.
Premier went back ahead on an own-goal after Liz Griffin put a cross in Oak’s direction, only for a Thunder defender put an errant clearance into her own net.
However, the Thunder tied the match in the waning stages of regulation, as Madeline Frick poked in a corner from close range, though her shot appeared to deflect off a Premier defender.
“If we clear the ball out of bounds and don’t give up the corner, we probably don’t get scored on, that second goal,” Spidahl said. “It was a scrappy game.”
Starting its season losing its first local tournament to a local team, Spidahl can chart measurable progress, to the point where he feels the girls won’t be able to sneak up on anyone, but that’s a challenge he wants for the team. He said the title will help increase the club’s profile nationally.
“We’ve just grown a ton to be a national champion, in the B Flight,” Spidahl said. “They’ve grown huge over the year. From their training habits to their ability to win, learn how to be tough in games, I’m just really proud of them. The growth has been exponential.
Oak said the team has grown a lot as players have improved over the course of the season. It’s her improvement, and that of the other girls on the team, that Spidahl said gives them confidence going forward.
“With this team, I’m not saying we’d win every game, but I’m not fearful to play any team,” Spidahl said. “I think we have enough talent and enough experience under our belts now after a year, I would expect us to be competitive in every game we play. That doesn’t mean we’re going to win, but before the year, I would not have said that.”
Washington Premier won’t be able to sneak up on anyone anymore, and that’s OK with them.
“It’s going to look amazing because everyone’s just going to be like, ‘Watch out for that team.’ It’s a cool feeling to know that everyone’s going to know you,” Oak said.