Placer United heads to the Hoosier State - A pair of club teams compete in NPL Finals
It’s been almost one year exactly since the under-18 Placer United boys soccer team won the 2014 National Premier League (NPL) Finals in North Carolina and brought the championship trophy back to Placer County.
Fast forward to July, 2015 and Placer United is sending a pair of girls squads to the East Coast to compete in this year’s tournament in Indiana.
“It’s very rare to have two teams in the same club that make it to the national finals,” stated Ron Benjamin, who’s been the Director of Coaching at Placer United for eight years.
Both the under-16 and under-17 girls squads will be make the trip after qualifying for the tournament in December after winning their respective divisions in the NPL NorCal Champions League.
The under-16 team, consisting of players born in 2000, won their league with a 6-1-1 record. Meanwhile, the under-17 team (players born in 1999) posted an undefeated 7-0-1 record.
“I’ve been playing with Placer United since I was apart of the under-9 team and it’s incredible to see how much better we’ve gotten as a team,” Rocklin High student and under-16 midfielder Megan Kuo said. “For us to win this tournament, we have to be strong on defense.”
Despite competing against many talented squads in the opening rounds of the tournament, Placer United has a tradition on their side.
“We’re seeking the club’s third and fourth national championship,” Benjamin said. “In 2008, the ’93 girls won the club soccer national championship and then last year our ’97 boys went out to the same event and won the national championship.
“We’re 2 for 2 at that level,” Benjamin added. “There’s a lot of pressure because we’re one of the more respected clubs in Northern California and we have a high standard.”
Nicolette Lewis — a member of the Granite Bay girls soccer team and a midfielder for the under-16 Placer United team — says she’s most excited to compete against some of the best teams in the nation this weekend.
“I think we start out by playing the fifth-ranked team in the nation,” Lewis explained. “So we need to have a winning mentality — that’s probably the number one thing."
Although the under-16 team dropped their opening match of the tournament 3-0 to Scottsdale Blackhawks 00G Shank, Lewis is happy that her team’s not alone in this process and they can lean on their peers for advice.
“It’s cool to go through this experience with another team,” she said. “We’ve been playing with them for so long, so it’s nice to compete against them and have them as role models for our team.”
The older girls on the team helped set the pace of the practices and made sure the younger team knew just how important this time of the year is for both squads.
The under-17 squad also took care of business on Thursday with a 4-2 win over Tusc Blitz United 99 Girls to move to the top of their bracket heading into Friday.
“High school ended in mid-May, we had tryouts and we started back up on June 1, so usually we’re on a break at this time of the year,” said Benjamin. “From June 22 to July 5 we let them recharge the batteries and then the tournament season starts at the end of July. But since we qualified for this tournament, we’re one of the only clubs around here training right now.
“So everyone forewent their vacations because we want to be prepared for this trip.”
A total of 16 teams qualified for the tournament by winning their state premier league. Each team is divided into a division — just like group play in the World Cup — which is comprised of four teams each. The four teams with the best record after group play advance.
“There are teams on the East Coast who just finished their competitive seasons, so they should be used to highly-competitive games,” Benjamin said.
Both Placer United squads began group play on Thursday and will end the first round of competition on Saturday. The semifinals will take place on Sunday and the championship will occur Monday morning if they qualify.
“I think we’re ready,” Benjamin said. “We’ve been training hard and pushing the girls to the limit for the last five weeks.”
Benjamin and the other coaches know just how tough the conditions back East will be, so they decided to turn up the heat in July.
“Getting used to the humidity is going to be horrible,” Lewis admitted. “Our coaches closed the garage doors at our practice facility and it suctioned in the heat. Plus, the other day we went on a run outside and it was 108 (degrees). It was so hot, but the coaches and parents surprised us with water balloons, so it was a great team-bonding experience.”
“If we’re playing in a location where it’s hot, we feel like we have an advantage — we train in the heat all the time,” Benjamin added. “But humidity is a little different.”
The teams flew out together on Wednesday, leaving little time for delay as the under-16 team played right away on Thursday at 9 a.m. CST.
“This is going to be much like a college team’s trip — It’s all business,” Benjamin said.
“We’ve never seen a lot of these teams,” Benjamin said. “So we’re going to need quick fixes on both sides and figure out what the other team is doing within 15 minutes; what’s their formation, what’s their style and then we’ll make our adjustments.
“We’ve played a lot of teams all over the country, but these specific ones we haven’t seen… We’re going in blind.”
The tournament is about more than just wins however.
“It’s about showing our abilities to college coaches who are watching and creating a future for ourselves,” Woodcreek student and under-17 midfielder Mackenzie George said.
“We have a lot of seniors on our team and although I’m only a junior, it’s still important to me to stand out and make an impact,” Oakmont High student and Placer United under-17 defender Kiley Whipple said. “So I just want to help my team in whatever way I can and find out if soccer is something I want to pursue at the next level."
Despite a lack of familiarity with their competition, Benjamin and Co. are confident they'll finish the tournament strong and they hope to bring home some hardware on the return flight.
Follow Steven Wilson on Twitter for game score and updates throughout the tournament: @stevenjwilson11.