Injuries can decimate a team or bring it together to build a stronger bond. The latter happened this season for the Ohio Premier U17 girls soccer squad.
Although the roster was down to 13 players at one point, the team persevered to reach the Elite Clubs National League national finals July 12 and 13 near Richmond, Virginia.
“This (was) a tough year because we kind of had a lot of injuries to start,” said defender Natalie Hegg, a rising senior at Olentangy Berlin. “We were down from 18 to 13 players when we started in February. It was definitely a struggle because you only have two (substitutes) with 11 starters.
“It was hard and a lot of work with only two subs a game, but that really helped us build a good bond. … I don’t think that adding any new players or changing our morale would have been good for us. The core of our team has been the key to our success.”
The girls won the nine-team ECNL Ohio Valley Conference title at 14-2 to qualify for the national playoffs June 25 to July 1 near San Diego. They defeated Acton (Massachusetts) FC Stars East 2-1 in a quarterfinal to qualify for the event in Virginia.
“I think it’s a group that gets along extremely well,” coach Willie Gage said. “When you have any group that enjoys being around each other, it makes it easier to compete harder for one another. Many of them have been together since they were 8 years old and the players have very good character.”
On July 12, the team opened the ECNL national finals with a 3-0 loss to Los Angeles FC Slammers in its semifinal game. It finished 25-8 overall after defeating Orangeburg (New York) World Class FC 4-3 on July 13 for third place.
“Teamwork and communication (were) the keys,” said forward Avery Jantonio, a rising junior at Hilliard Bradley. “We kind of started off rough with injuries and now … we have seen what we can do when we all work together.”
Gage said his team suffered three key injuries before the season began. Forwards Simone Rivard-Roberts (Dublin Coffman) and Sydney McMillin (Delaware) both suffered knee injuries during their high school seasons, and forward Sonia Vargas suffered a broken leg during her season at Hilliard Davidson.
“We got Sonia back in mid-March and didn’t get Simone back until late May,” Gage said. “Syd has recently been cleared to play but her conditioning isn’t where it needs to be, and she didn’t play (in Virginia).
“When you have injuries like that, there are two ways the players can go. They can feel sorry for themselves or take it as a challenge. They decided to dig a little deeper and they learned more about themselves than they expected.”
Goalkeeper Michayla Gussler, a rising senior at Thomas Worthington, said the team meshed as a unit.
“The secret to our success (was) that even though we are all very different, we were always pushing to be united as one team,” Gussler said. “That’s hard because we’re all good players individually and sometimes teams just don’t come together like this.”
Other area players on the roster are forwards Tori Haggit (Pickerington North), Sydney Lape (Upper Arlington) and Riley Mullady (Dublin Jerome), midfielders Emma Barthel (Coffman), Isabella Ginocchi (Watterson) and Carly Ross (Olentangy) and defenders Sophia Leonetti (Olentangy Orange) and Haley Moore (Pickerington North).
“I have gained 17 best friends, and that’s been great,” Hegg said. “We’ll be friends for a long time win or lose. I’m having so much fun playing the game I love with some great friends.”