Local U-17 soccer team, SASA Spirits Blue, and local U-15 soccer team, SASA Spirits 99, are competing with the best of the best. Both teams are unique as each roster is made up of players from five different area high schools, joining their skills for the benefit of the best club team possible. Interestingly, in the fall, these athletes will face off again, playing this time against one another on their individual high school teams. But for now, they are united. The two local teams are categorized as U-17 and U-15 because, “In the world of soccer, it’s all an age cutoff,” says U-15 Team Manager, Craig Albers of Jacksonville; therefore, U-17 and U-15 indicate the teams’ ages as Under 17 years old and Under 15 years old, respectively. The two SASA (Springfield Area Soccer Association) teams are headed to Greenville, South Carolina, for the US Youth Soccer organization’s National Presidents Cup to compete “in an event that pits the Champions of four very different parts of the United States against one another,” says the US Youth Soccer program.
Coach René Troppa leads the U-15 SASA Spirits 99 and Coach Jim Paoni heads up the U-17 SASA Spirits Blue. The club teams began their seasons in the fall of this year with soccer tournaments designed to start with “pool play” and eventually lead the teams to advance to the next stage of the nationwide tournaments. In time, both teams won the State Tournament for their age group, and pressed on to win the Region II (comprised of Illinois and 11 other states) Tournament in June, making each team the Region II representative at the National Presidents Cup that is taking place this weekend, July 10-13. “So, we have two teams that have advanced all the way to the National Championship. And now they’re both playing for the National Championship in their age group, representing both the state of Illinois and their club. Where the US team (of the World’s Cup) says, ‘For club and country,’ we say ‘For club and state,” tells Albers.
Jacksonville itself has seven players on the two SASA teams, including 15 year-olds Steven Albers, John Gibbons, Ethan Karr, and Brandon McCombs. 16 year-old Mark Wilson also represents Jacksonville, as do 17 year-olds Ty Rogers and AJ Underwood. #28 Gibbons says he loves soccer because, “It is a strategic and challenging sport that I enjoy participating in,” adding that “It feels great to see the progress we have made over the season to get where we are.” Upcoming JHS sophomore, #22 Albers has “loved the game and played since (he) was four years old,” and says that the best memory from this club season so far has been beating the National Champions from last year, especially after losing to them last year 2-1. #21 Karr notes that “advancing onward from this level can lead to nothing more than positive play on the field.” It’s great to realize that this sport is something the kids love, as well. #12 McCombs expresses that, “Soccer is a sport that I am able to play at a high level and also have fun in the process.” Ultimately, the memory of making it to Nationals will stick with these guys; #17 Wilson describes his love for soccer as being “a part of the team (to) compete against others to win the game. The thrill of being successful after working so hard is amazing.” The older players have their futures in mind, as well, just as #0 Rogers voices, “It is great that we will be playing very good competition and also have the opportunity to show our skills to college coaches.” Soccer “makes me happy” and playing at this level “makes me want to work harder than anyone else on the field,” adds #23 Underwood.
Clearly, these guys are ready to compete, and furthermore – they have earned it. They’re all in and so are their parents, as “Everybody…everybody is going,” says U-15 Team Manager Albers. Like him, they “wouldn’t miss it.” Best of luck, gentlemen! Feel free to follow these local athletes and the National Tournament happenings using various social media that can be found at www.usyouthsoccer.org/community.