The final game of Diablo FC’s Under Nine girls began much as the first few games of the season had; with parents groaning, hearts in throat as their children played with every bit of focus and heart it was possible to show. Just as the first few games proved a lesson in what skills were necessary to hold one’s own among such competitive teams, this final looked to prove what was required to be champions.
But before speaking of the game, a little about what was before and behind us on that cold November afternoon: Both sides were were nearly the same in stature, but the SSJ Arsenal team had what appeared to be a greater number of bodies to throw into the match, something that might prove critical if the game went into overtime. With only three girls to sub in, Diablo FC U9 Girls have made do with fewer players than most every team they played in the last year. Made do, and more. They are a team: playing, laughing, pushing through together under the steady guidance of their coaching staff. All the time spent listening to their coaches, all the play, all the practices and games spent on the field under a searing sun or enduring cold winds, all of it was to come down to forty minutes and more of hard, heavily-contested play.
But we must digress, because you haven’t yet had an introduction to the team. So here, a few words about individual elements that made up Diablo FC’s Team Thunder:
Olivia: Don’t blink. Using footwork that is hard to believe from one so young, she’ll blow right past and bang it home.
Evelyn: This young lady is an amazing player, so serene and poised, the power and precision of her kicks must be seen to be believed.
Emma: Smooth, fast, and always ready with the pass or the shot. Always in position and ready to roll it forward.
Kaia: The youngest of the players, and one of the best ball handlers out there, turning on a dime and raking balls to the point the opposition has no idea where it might be from one instant to the next..
Vanessa: Has anyone so tiny ever been so fearless, so tireless, so willing to go the extra mile? Everyone knows when they’ve been playing against Vanessa, especially when they are looking up at her.
Jenny: Smooth power in the defense, feeding the ball where it needs to go with her exceptionally powerful boot. Another of the calm, steady players Thunder was blessed with.
Isabelle: Often in at Keeper, she’s got a grip, and doesn’t hesitate to throw herself at the ball. Is that a dance she’s doing?
Natalie: Often in on defense, she’s shy till the ball comes within reach, then it seems to get out of reach of the other team.
Izzie: Another serene player, Izzie joined the team a bit later than the others, but fit right in as a defender, blowing up the opposition’s attempts to score.
Alexa: Another of Team Thunder’s players who play often and well at Keep, Alexa is there for the clutch plays regardless of position.
Jenna: Heart, skills and an awareness of where she’s needed, Jenna has it all.
Coach Miguel: The head coach, Miguel had a plan for the girls from day one, and he followed it. Thunder’s fine finish was the result. No stars, just crisp, accurate passing and hard, tight, team play.
Coach Lynn: Calm and assertive, Coach Lynn supported his head coach and the team, running warm-ups and stepping up to take over seamlessly when Coach Miguel had to drive the many miles between venues to coach his older girl’s team.
Manager Michelle: The coordinator for the team, Michelle was on it, all the time, and generally with a smile. She sacrificed much of her personal time to support Diablo FC and Thunder.
The parents: Suffice to say, none of the girls would have made it to practices, games, or any of the other necessary things without their parents. Beyond that, like our girls, we all got along and, while competitive, we were very good about screaming our support rather than raving in anger at poor calls or cheap shots.
Now you’ve had a brief introduction to the team, it’s time to talk turkey. This was Thunder’s first year as a team. They had a bit of a shaky start, having a hard time for the first few tournaments. Eventually their training and hard practices paid off, as Thunder handily won the league, outperforming the other teams. Then, at the Kick Or Treat Tournament Diablo FC hosted, where the players must wear a costume to play, Thunder went out in full Rock Star fashion; painted faces, dazzling smiles and special uniforms, placing second.
Then it was on to the State Cup Tournament. The first two days were cold, wet Davis days. Team Thunder scored well and often, allowing only two goals the first four games. The semi-final went well, and Thunder rolled on.
Alright, you’ve had your introductions. You’ve heard of their accomplishments, now we can get to the final.
The first twenty minutes were a lesson in why soccer is, at all levels and ages, such challenging sport: despite some questionable calls by one of the refs, several opportunities were created by Diablo FC’s Team Thunder offense, only to have the tiny goal keeper for Arsenal repeatedly crush rising hopes. Midway through the first half, a fine shot by an Arsenal player put them ahead 1-0.
The girls were not phased, and continued to play their best. We took a few more shots, but the Arsenal keeper did her job with style and grace, shutting down several solid attempts.
One of the referees missed a few calls. The parents started to get anxious, rumbling their discontent. The girls soldiered on, unfazed, as if to show us foolish grown-ups, “Hey, it’s all part of the game.”
A few minutes later, a few more poor calls and another ball found its way into the back of Diablo FC’s net. Now the grumbling from the sidelines was louder.
At the half, though, the girls walked off with heads held high. Down 2-0, they remained unbowed.
On the sideline, the tension was palpable. Parents staggering back and forth with wide-eyed, shell-shocked expressions, muttering in their anxiety and fear.
Half time ended with the parent’s still trying to shake their fear.
Thunder rolled onto the field and began to impose their will on Arsenal.
About ten minutes into the twenty minute half, Olivia, charging downfield, ball on a string before her, drew four defenders to try and stop her, so concerned were they at the threat she posed. She executes a sweet little dump pass to Emma, who takes the shot. Keeper deflects it. Emma follows it up, tips it in.
The sidelines explode in cheers and shouts.
For those keeping track, Arsenal’s lead is now halved; a lone, paltry point stands between victory and a tie.
Play resumes at an unforgiving pace that plays to Arsenal’s advantage. With their larger squad, they can substitute nearly an entire line-up at any time.
The play surges back and forth across the field, time running out on us. The tension mounts, minute on minute slipping away.
With but one minute on the clock, Jenny gets the short kick and puts a boot to it, feeding Emma, who dodges, twists and moves, shaking it loose to send it to Evelyn. Evelyn cranks it and delivers a thunderous shot into the back of the net to tie the game.
The next minute passes without a breath being taken by anyone on the sidelines.
Overtime it is. Five minutes or sudden death.The toss is to our advantage, Thunder have the wind behind and the slight slope to speed the ball.
Five minutes of brutally fast play drag on, withe neither side able to put one in. We get a hard shot off, but the Arsenal Keeper stuffs it.
A brief break between five minute overtime halves, and the players are back.
Thunder is noticeably slower now, the long minutes of intense play taking their toll. Arsenal also looks tired, but having more players to play, have a bit more juice.
Arsenal, in it to win it, marches forward and one of them fires a long, high ball. Groans emerge from the sidelines, sure the Keeper can’t get a hand to it. Alexa calmly deflects to her feet then collects it and sends it on.
The minutes bleed by, the parents afraid to close their eyes for fear of missing the game-ending shot.
Instead the game ends in stalemate.
Each side: five shooters. One tiny keeper, alone.
Evelyn is sent in to do double duty for Thunder. Not only will she shoot, she will tend goal as well. She shoots first, places the ball tidily in one corner.
The Arsenal player steps up, scores.
Fingertips are being gnawed to bloody stumps on the sidelines, and blood pressures spiking to frightening levels. One is forced to wonder, if this is what I am feeling, what must the players?
Emma steps up, misses.
Another Arsenal player slams one in.
Jenny steps up, hammers a powerful shot into the back of the net.
The next Arsenal player fires one on target, but Evelyn puts a stop to it.
Vanessa lines up her shot, takes it. The Arsenal Keeper, at full extension, gets a hand to the ball, slowing it to a crawl. Crawling, Vanessa’s shot still crosses the line for the point.
The next Arsenal player gets up, shoots a hard one toward the corner. Evelyn, stretching, slaps the ball sideways and out.
Izzy, composed and ready, steps to the line. If she scores, it is done. Izzy takes the necessary steps and ends it with a powerful kick. It finds the net.
The girls shriek with glee, the parents roar.
The culmination of a season, not on one small set of a shoulders, but on a team’s.
Working together at all turns, Diablo FC’s Team Thunder overcame all opposition and produced a magnificent memory for themselves, for their coaches, and for their parents.
Had it gone the other way, it still would have been a season to remember.