A tough final result aside, hard work paid off over the weekend for six Newport Beach girls.
The Newport Beach-based Slammers FC finished last year as the overall Elite Clubs National League national champions, but Coach George Larsen said the Under-15 girls' team was "our weakest team in our older lineup." The team did not make it to the national playoffs.
Larsen, who also is the Corona del Mar High boys' soccer coach, kept working with the squad. The girls, who include Brianna Westrup, Miranda Stiver, Brynn Motal and Shelby Brown of Corona del Mar High, as well as Rowan Frederiksen and Natalie Ward of Newport Harbor, also stayed committed and worked hard.
They came so close to a national championship Monday afternoon in Henrico, Va. The Slammers, now an U16 team, lost to Sereno (Ariz.) in a penalty-kick shootout in the ECNL national finals championship match, 2-0, after the teams played regulation and overtime to a scoreless tie.
Larsen said the match, played in 95-degree heat and high humidity, tested both clubs.
"It was absolutely grueling conditions," Larsen said. "They definitely gave everything they had. It was a great final, both really good teams and both had chances to win it. Neither team would budge.
"Obviously, what these girls have done, leapfrogging some of those teams out there, we're really proud of them."
Larsen said he's now 2-2 in national championship matches as a coach. His last title came in 2010, when the Slammers U16 boys won at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships.
The Newport Beach girls all chipped in this year; Larsen said each of them started at least once at nationals. Westrup, the Virginia commit and a defender, also showed a bit of heroics after busting her head open during the team's first game at the tournament, a 1-0 victory over Dallas Sting, one of the tournament favorites coming in.
"It kind of just came out of nowhere," Westrup said Tuesday night after flying home. "I was backpedaling, and another girl was coming from the other direction. We both tried to head the ball and we butted heads."
Westrup went to the emergency room and required three stitches in her head, but she played the rest of the tournament.
Westrup was named a top player of Day 2 by TopDrawerSoccer.com after the Slammers edged an Orange County opponent, the SC Blues, by the same 1-0 score.
"She was unbelievable," Larsen said. "She was a trooper; she showed a lot of courage and toughness."
Frederiksen, a Colorado College commit, was the team's starting goalkeeper. She made several big saves throughout the tournament, including one cited by TopDrawerSoccer on Day 2. Frederiksen stopped UCLA-bound Blues player Anika Rodriguez, a U.S. U17 national team player, in a one-on-one situation.
Stiver (Oregon State), Brown, Ward and Motal also contributed. Larsen said that Ward, who will be a junior at Newport Harbor, also recently made the U18 national team pool.
Westrup said the support of the Slammers U17 team, which had won the U16 national title last season, also was crucial in Virginia.
The win over the Blues clinched the group for the Slammers and earned them a berth into the national title match. Larsen rested many of his starters in the final group match, a 2-1 loss to the Albion Hurricanes of Houston.
In the other three matches, the Slammers allowed no goals in regulation.
"Defensively, we were doing outstanding in the tournament," Westrup said.
Next up for the team is the prestigious San Diego Surf Cup, and don't be surprised if the Slammers again contend there.
"This team in particular has been my favorite to be on," Westrup said. "Our strength is that we're all good people, we have good families. We're all in it together … getting this far and believing in each other, it's unreal."