It has been about three years now since Newport Beach residents Greg and Matt Baker started coaching five talented local girls' soccer players at Harbor Day School.
At the time, the girls were just 9 years old, but the talent was obvious to the Baker brothers. They believed that Lily Shea, Megan Chelf, Jen Alvarado, Emily Mickelsen and Nikki Senske could be part of something special.
The coaches and players returned to Harbor Day on Tuesday afternoon for a light training session. But there is nothing light about the accomplishments of this particular quintet.
They have lost just once in the run of play in their two years competing for the San Juan Capistrano-based Southern California Blues soccer club. And just two weeks ago, the 12-year-old girls earned their biggest victory yet.
The Blues Under-12 girls, featuring the five Newport girls and coached by the Bakers, won the U.S. Youth Soccer Region IV Championships on June 22 in Albuquerque, N.M. They earned the title of "Best in the West" after beating Washington Premier FC, 5-4, in penalty kicks after there was no score through regulation.
The girls stood on a stage after it was all over, spraying bottles of apple cider — not champagne — in celebration.
"It was so heartwarming because we all worked so hard to get there," said Chelf, a center midfielder who just graduated from Andersen Elementary. "When we won, everyone was crying with joy because we were all so happy. [The last game] was tough, but we always try to fight through it. This team never gets mad at each other, because we all know that if we get mad then people get frustrated and tend to get scared, so they won't go in as hard or play their normal game."
Everyone contributed. Alvarado, who attends Mariners Christian, and Mickelsen (CdM) also played in the midfield. Shea, who attends Harbor Day, was a left defender. Senske, who just graduated from Eastbluff Elementary, played forward. She scored three goals in the team's six games, during which the Blues outscored their opponents by a combined 20-3.
Trinity Rodman, who attended Kaiser Elementary in Costa Mesa but recently moved to Yorba Linda, scored the winning penalty-kick goal in the final after goalie Ryan Campbell made a big save.
"She was nervous," Greg Baker said of Rodman, who led Kaiser to Daily Pilot Cup titles in 2011 and '13 and is the daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman. "She was nervous, but I think anybody would be nervous. At the same time, she didn't say, 'No.' She could have easily said she didn't want to take it ... [but] she's a big-game player."
There are plenty of big-game players on the squad. The Newport Beach girls are certainly used to winning. They also have won the prestigious Cal South State Cup tournament two years running. That was the end of the road as an Under-11 team, but for Under-12 teams winning State Cup means you qualify for the Far West Regional (Region IV) tournament.
It provided a great opportunity, but also a new challenge.
"We were all kind of nervous to go," Chelf said. "But Greg and Matt always say, 'Turn your nerves into aggression.'"
The girls certainly made the most of their chance. They edged another Southern California team, Legends FC, by a 2-1 score in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, they eased past Pacific Northwest Soccer Club of Washington, 5-1.
"It was a really, really fun tournament," Alvarado said. "I wasn't nervous in the beginning, but I was really nervous at finals. If you win, it's super-exciting, but if you lose, it's horrifying. It's terrible to lose in the finals."
The girls felt that they were well-prepared to win. They were first coached by the Baker brothers on Breakaway, before joining with other players to form a Blues squad.
Breakaway is the club team on which Jen's older sister, Annie, had so much success. She was coached by the Bakers since she was 9 years old, Greg Baker said.
Annie Alvarado, the 2011-12 Daily Pilot Dream Team Newport-Mesa Girls' Soccer Player of the Year as a junior at Corona del Mar High, now plays for UCLA. She helped the Bruins win the NCAA Division 1 title last December, and Jen went to North Carolina to watch her older sister in the Final Four.
Soon enough, Jen and the other Blues players will also have an opportunity to win a national title. Beginning next year, at Under-13, the regional winners play each other for the title of U.S. Youth Soccer National Champions. And as the girls get older they will be able to play in the Elite Clubs National League, which leads up to the ECNL national championships each summer.
"I feel like we'll do really well in the future, when we play ECNL," Mickelsen said. "We'll only get stronger ... We have a really good work rate and we have really good coaches."
Yet, it's more than that. There is a sense of family among the players on the team. That's why, instead of getting hotel rooms in Albuquerque, the team rented a house.
The Bakers, who also coach girls' soccer at JSerra High, are big on camaraderie.
"Most teams do hotel rooms, but we rent a big house so everybody stays there," Matt Baker said. "We have chaperones come in, our mom comes in and they do all the cooking, cleaning, everything. It's ran like a pro team. They wake up, all their food is laid out for them. They eat, they take off and go to their game. By the time they're finished with their game, lunch is ready. After lunch, they give them all of their dirty clothes, and the parents wash them.
"It's ran just like a college or a pro system. They get spoiled on these trips, but it's pretty fun because the team gets to stay together. A lot of bonding for the girls, which they love."
Everything seems to be clicking for the Blues. The one big tournament the team hasn't won is the Surf Cup, which is being held Aug. 2-4 at the San Diego Polo Club in Del Mar.
The girls didn't play in the Surf Cup last year. In 2012, they lost in the finals in penalty kicks.
But they don't really need extra motivation to get the job done. They're playing for each other.
"We're such good friends," Alvarado said. "We're not hard on each other, and we lift each other up. We've just always worked well together."