Ellie, Leah and Sam after a comeback win in Laingsburg earlier in the season
I've been having a blast coaching soccer this season. I had plenty of fun last year, but I've found my way a little easier as a coach this year. It also helps that my players are great.
They shuffle the teams up every year to keep it fair, but the advantage I had was that I automatically am able to get my daughter Leah and my niece Sam and both had improved exponentially from the year before. Leah is taller than most girls and big enough where they can't stop her and her will when she gets going. She had scored six or seven goals by the third game. Sam is smaller but faster and had really honed her skill of getting a shot off in traffic and that led to some goals.
The new thing in AYSO this year was an end-of-the-fall tournament to introduce a more competitive atmosphere to the girls. Our area includes DeWitt, St. Johns, Ovid-Elsie, Bath and Laingsburg. When the two-day tournament began a few Saturdays ago we were 4-0-2. In addition to Leah and Sam, the other eight girls are good. A couple are superstars in the making.
I had played around with the lineup all year, but decided to make a concerted effort on the defensive side of the ball for the tournament. I always had it set up where I could add some firepower at the end if we needed to score.
The first game was in Elsie against an O-E team that was good. The coach told me before that they had just tied a team from Bath that played five on seven-- two players short. So, I figured either the other team was phenomenal or this team was awful. It wasn't the latter. Their girls passed and shot well, but I had good goalies in net and they played well. Then Sam broke through with a shot in the second half as she was being shadowed by a girl twice her size. The shot came out of nowhere from about 20 yards out and it went in. It would be the only goal of the game. 1-0 final.
Then we bonded. I asked the girls if anyone wanted to ride with me to the next game in St. Johns. They all did. It's not in the GM commercial, but you can get 11 people in a GMC Acadia. We proved it. After a lot of laughs along M-21, we arrived as the weather turned very cold. One of my players, Leeann was coming off the flu and couldn't play if it rained, but it was holding off for the moment.
The guy running the tournament was coaching the other team from Laingsburg, which I knew was good, because all teams from Bath and Laingsburg are great. But we were good too and I laid it all out for the girls in the pregame speech. I borrowed a little from Gene Hackman and also pulled out my ace in the hole-- bribery.
"Let's do what we've done all year long-- focus on making a good passes and never giving up. Make a move and shoot on offense and control it and blast it out on defense. Whatever you do, do not get caught up in winning and losing this game. If we do all that and have fun doing it-- we're going to be winners no matter what the score is."
Then came the icing... literally.
"And I told you I had a surprise for you guys today. If we play well in this game, Coach is taking everybody out to Shaggie's for ice cream after the game!"
They erupted in screams and cheers.
We broke the huddle the way we always did-- chanting our team name with an increasing volume.
"Mean Green Bean Machine... Mean Green Bean Machine... MEAN GREEN BEAN MACHIIIIIIIINNNNNEEEEE!"
We got off to a good start as Autumn, a girl that hadn't scored all year and is still learning the fundamentals, broke free. She took the ball all the way down the field and scored. I don't know if I've ever been happier for a kid. It's always great when they score their first goal of the year and this one came at the biggest moment. What made me melt even more was the other girls on the team were even happier for her.
Then the rain came on top of the bitter cold falling temps. Leeann was on D, but I couldn't make substitutions for a few more minutes. I was keeping an eye on her when the ball got loose again down field. Lindsey, our leading goal scorer on the year, kicked one that ricocheted out in front of the net and who was there to knock it in-- but Autumn! Two goals in the first 10 minutes!
Now I was only worried about Leeann and the cold. I got her out and made some changes, when Ellie got hurt. Ellie might be the most talented girl on the team and makes great play after great play. Earlier in the year, she made a diving stop to save a goal when she was on defense that brought oohs and ahhs from parents. She came out of the game and it looked like an ankle tweak. Late in the first half something very scary happened. Pele showed up. A girl on the other team takes the ball on her side of the field and races past all our girls and drills one past Taylor, who's a great goalie. Wow. Immediately, our new strategy was: stop this girl. Taylor covered her for the entire second half and got some help to keep her off the scoreboard and we held on to win 2-1.
This meant we were guaranteed to play on Sunday in the semi-finals. The girls were thrilled as we went to get ice cream and I think the parents were pretty geeked too.
Sunday began by waiting. The games were behind, but the girls were loose-- unlike their coach. Our first game was against the Bath team that played short and tied the team we beat 1-0. They won their second game short two players and were ready to go. Their superstar had scored five goals in the second game Saturday so I put the ol' isolation strategy in place again. Funny thing is, the girl-- Olivia-- was a family friend of ours and it was tough to not root for her. The team was short on players again, but just by one, so we played six on seven. Middle of the first half, Olivia took a pass and weaved her way around players and scored on a great shot. I couldn't help but smile and tell her "Great shot!" You'd never know this team was down a player, because they were good. We had only trailed for a couple minutes all year so I was worried about how they would respond after we'd been trailing for almost half the game. I told Leah I needed her to find a way to score as she took the field for the second half. 14 minutes in, she came through with a shot from the corner that bounded past the goalie. 1-1. That's the way regulation ended. But this was a tournament so we went to overtime. I could see us getting winded in the extra session as Reilly, Payton, Ellie and all the rest gave everything they had. We went to a second overtime and it was again the Lindsey-Autumn connection that came through. It was the most innocent play, Lindsie centered one that Autumn kind of nonchalantly tipped in the net. Almost an excuse-me game winner.
With the 2-1 double overtime win, we got ready for another Bath team. I implored the girls to rest, but they're 9-year old girls.
They put us on a bigger field for the championship and we were ready to play, but maybe not ready for adversity. Ten minutes in, Autumn accidentally kicked one past Leah into our own goal. It almost shocked our whole team-- Leah especially, because she was obviously devastated and crying a little. I calmly told everyone to relax, there was a lot of game left and we could come back like we have many time before. Then the first quarter ended and Meg started crying and said one of the girls on the other team called her a wimp. A couple girls said they heard others say it too. I did not and was shocked.
"So what? Do you think that's the last time in your life someone's going to hurt your feelings? I don't want you to say anything back, let's get 'em where it really hurts-- on the scoreboard."
But things got a little out of control from there. Lindsie obviously wasn't happy with the name-calling allegations and started playing aggressively. Not like the girl from New Mexico or anything like that, but she was pushing much more than she had all year long. I actually had to say something to her a couple times. I can't fault her competitiveness or a little pushing because a lot of girls push. Some even push too much when they get caught up in the heat of the game-- including Leah, who's done it from time to time. I could just tell Lindsie wanted to score a goal and pick the whole team up. Unfortunately, she didn't. This team was very good and kept their spacing even better. They were well coached and excited to play. It was good we played our best goalies, because from start to finish they peppered our goalies with good shots. Midway through the second half, they slipped one past to make it 2-0. Late in the game, with Leah playing forward and struggling to keep going, she found another gear. She took a pass and went up the right side and with a bad angle blasted one. There must have been only two feet of open space, but she found some. It was 2-1 and our girls were re-energized. But there was little time left and we were in desperation mode, meaning we sent more players up the field to score. It resulted in an odd-man rush and a goal for them at the very end of the game.
Final score: 3-1.
We lost and the girls knew it. I saw devastation and tears as they all came in for the final huddle. They absolutely had nothing left. Lindsie couldn't breathe, Leah was crying out of exhaustion and the tears became contagious. It was okay though. They will learn a lot from losing and now know what it takes to win when you play the best. I know I learned what we need to do to be better and can't wait until the spring to try it out. The girls summoned enough energy to hoist their 2nd place medals in front of their parents and by the night they were all doing much better. I was so proud.
So much so, that I have a surprise for them. My assistant coach, Leeann*, is hosting a sleepover. Well, her parents are. As it turns out, Leeann misses her teammates so much they floated the slumber party idea and everybody jumped at the idea. So, I'll stop by on November 20th with some t-shirts.
On the front:
"ST. JOHNS SOCCER CHAMPIONS"
And on the back:
"MEAN GREEN BEAN MACHINE"
I'm pretty excited and would like it to be a surprise, so shhh.
*Leeann is the talkative, spark plug on the team and often mimicked my instructions during the game both on and off the field, so I gave her the title of "Assistant Coach."
BACK ROW: Reilly, Leah, Coach, Lindsie, Payton FRONT ROW: Autumn, Sam, Taylor, Ellie, Meg, Leeann