The annual Championship tournament saw the Vikings Girls soccer team travel to ASIJ as the 7th place seed. We had to set out very early, as the bottom four teams are required to play an extra round of matches to qualify. Spirits were high though and, at 7:18 AM, the girls soccer and boys basketball teams joined together to chant, “I believe that we can win!”
Our first match was against CAJ, a team that we had beaten earlier in the season. During the warm-ups, the girls set about practicing penalty kicks just in case of a tie game later in the day. Little did we realize that a clear handball in the box would result in a chance to step to the spot just 5 minutes into the game. Having impressed with her consistency during the warm-ups, Kiyomi was the natural choice. She stepped to the spot and firmly placed her shot to the right of the goalkeeper to put the team up 1-0. A painful ankle injury sustained at practice would keep Maya out of the midfield, but this proved to be an advantage as she excelled on the right side of defense and Yukie, having been moved up the pitch, gave us a very strong midfield. Adinnah, Akari, Ema, and Mika were all making threatening runs up front, but it was Miren who would score our second goal of the day. Although CAJ started to apply the pressure, the Vikings would strike one more time before the half. An accidental ball in the face caused a few minute delay as CAJ tended to their injured player who was in quite some pain. The Vikings huddled with Coach Creston, who shared his concerns about the injured player’s well-being but reminded the girls there was nothing we could do to help her at this point and we needed to put it aside and focus on the game. The sharp focus of the VIkings was on immediate display with the ensuing throw-in. Yukie would find Miren on the right-hand side, and Miren rifled home a strong shot across the goal to make it 3-0 at the half. At the half, the Coach and several members of our team walked over to give our support to the injured CAJ player who would, thankfully, return to the match later in the second half. The second half was a back and forth battle, with Yennah, Kiyomi and Maya protecting our goal and Anna making several key saves. Gyuri, Lynette and May would join the battle, and Tsugumi made several long dribbles to show just how much her confidence had grown during the season. Despite a flurry of shots on goal from the Vikings, the score would finish 3-0 and we were on to the second round.
The second round match would see us take on 2nd placed BST, a team which had handed us quite a heavy defeat earlier in the season. Once again the girls huddled before kickoff and screamed together as one, “I believe that we can win”, with a show of convincing Viking pride. The game started as a tight affair, with both teams clearly aware that a loss would bring an end to their day. Anna was on top of her game in goal, and would turn away several shots early in the game while distributing the ball upfield. Despite threatening runs from Rihanna, Ema and Tsugumi, it was BST who would score twice before halftime but the Vikings were clearly in this match. BST continued to utilize their very organized defensive strategy against our long kick-offs, placing 3 defenders on the line alongside their goalkeeper, which we took as a sign of respect from the match earlier in the season. In a serious blow to the team, Maya was forced to withdraw before the half when a strong tackle sent her to the turf with a clearly painful reminder of her ankle injury. As the girls came off at halftime, Coach Creston and Coach Kendra noted an incredible sense of energy and spirit, as the girls were all chatting excitedly about how they were playing and comparing strategies to combat BST. Recalling an example set by the great Arsene Wenger who managed Arsenal to an unbeaten season in 2004, the coaches decided to say nothing during halftime with the sole exception of confirming the second half lineup. Perhaps this was our best decision of the season, as the girls motivated themselves to play the half of their lives…”I believe that we will win” rang across the ASIJ campus yet again. Kiyomi, Yennah and Yukie would stand firm in the back, with Adinnah adding her positive passing and instinctive positioning to the midfield partnership. Miren would pull a goal back before another boost for the Vikings, as Maya was ready to give her ankle another test and bravely returned to the match. As momentum built in our favor, a small but mighty force, that had threatened to blossom all season, sprang forth. Enter sixth grade Rihanna making several runs into the 6-yard box. Consistently in the right space, she received several crosses from the Vikings midfield. One finally stuck late in the game, as Miren crossed a low-drive from the right corner and Rihanna would slam home to level the game at 2-2. The Vikings defended in numbers for two long minutes to send the game to penalties.
Penalties are always a cruel lot and a surprising number of the games on this tournament day were decided in this dramatic way. Only players on the field at the final whistle can participate and, often, even fewer actually want to take that long walk to the spot. We chose our order and the coin toss dictated that the Vikings would shoot first. Unfortunately, Kiyomi who had been so solid in practice, would see her firm shot saved by the BST goalkeeper. I’ll say again what I said on Saturday, I would have zero hesitation to send Kiyomi to take a penalty again as even the top professionals can miss one in these stressful situations. BST would convert their first, before Rihanna got us on the board with a low, rolling shot into the right corner of the net. BST would score their next shot before Maya, still playing through her pain, rifled her penalty into the net without so much as a wince. Sometimes a coach gets lucky and seconds after yelling “Anna, this is your moment” from the sidelines, Anna did seize this moment and confidently kicked away the next BST effort. With the order already decided, it would be Miren’s turn to step up and further swing the momentum our way with a firm strike to make it 3-2. BST would convert to level again before the silent, but deadly, Tsugumi walked to the spot, got about her business and cooly converted her shot to make it 4-3. Our picture from last week’s newsletter showed the next moment as Anna’s presence in goal pushed BST to crack, and send their final shot high over the goal. Cue joyous celebrations from the Vikings as the girls had unexpectedly dispatched the clear favorites to progress to the semi-final.
Our reward was a semi-final against the 3rd place Sacred Heart team, who were our first opponents in November after only 2 practices together as a team. Thinking back to that 6-0 loss, the girls were excited as this match would provide a chance to see how we had learned and grown during the season. The message from the coaches was to forget everything that had come before, including our dramatic win over BST, and focus only on this game. It should be noted that Sacred Heart played this match, as well as the majority of their season, without an injured star who is one of the best players in our league. The Vikings created their own luck early in the match, as a dangerous corner from Miren bounced off of a defender’s head, through the goalkeeper’s hands and into the net...they all count the same! There was nothing lucky about our play at the back as Anna, confidence soaring, made a number of fine saves and positioned herself well to cut down the angles from Sacred Heart’s persistent attack. Kiyomi continued to have her strongest day of the season, with a combination of tough tackles in defense and confident dribbles upfield. Yennah, Maya and Yukie were tirelessly pressuring the attackers, but Sacred Heart would find a way to equalize before the half. Coach Kendra rallied the energy and spirit of the Vikings at halftime and, early in the second half, it was Rihanna who responded with her third goal of the tournament. Sacred Heart would not go quietly and they quickly came back to tie the score at 2-2. The two teams continued to exchange pressure and shots at both ends with Adinnah, MIka, Ema and Tsugumi all threatening for the Vikings. The final say would fall to Miren who, shooting at will all game long, blocked a clearance and immediately reacted to slam this shot into the net! Her goal would prove to be the match winner as the Viking defense held out for 4 minutes against a determined Sacred Heart team. Another unexpected victory, propelled by Vikings pride and belief in each other, had earned us a trip to the Final!
With our egos, if not toes, still cold from the recent 13-0 loss in the snow, we knew that facing our hostesses ASIJ would be a challenge worthy of a Final. A school that has over 1600 students and practice fields which reflect a University campus is a taste of top-tier competition. By the final whistle, every girl on the Vikings squad savored the taste of what it means to play in a Championship match, and every one of them showed the pride and skills they had developed over the course of these all-too short seasons. We defiantly chanted “I believe that we can win” before the match and at halftime, and played with that same sense of belief. Adinnah, Akari, Ema, Mika, Rihanna and Tsugumi continued to threaten throughout this game, showing that more Finals await these talented sixth graders who can be the future of the Vikings soccer program. Gyuri, Lynette, May and Victoria strode out confidently during the match to remind everybody, themselves included, of the great strides they have made with this Vikings team. Maya bravely continued to play through her pain and, alongside Yennah and Captain Kiyomi, consistently moved the ball upfield in to cap a day which represented their best performances of the season. Yukie continued to work tirelessly with her legs and arms as our Queen of Throw-Ins, a valuable threat throughout the season. Despite allowing a few goals in against the ultimate Champions, Anna showed why she has changed this Viking team, not single-handedly but, with both hands as a promising young Goalkeeper with a huge potential in the game of football. Miren was sent out with the specific task of marking, disrupting and frustrating the star player from ASIJ. Late in the match, Miren would receive a loud, stinging verbal rebuke from this player as satisfying evidence of some degree of success. Miren would also score the lone VIkings goal in the Final, giving her the more immediate satisfaction of having scored against every team in the league this season. Despite a final loss of 6-1, the Vikings remained a team who was smiling and laughing together as the final whistle closed out a memorable season. More than one person commented that these girls seemed to feel more like Champions than their talented opposition. We cannot wait to see where they go from here!