By Gary Curreri
With four teams headed to the US Youth Soccer National Championships at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, Florida next week, there is one constant among all of the Team Boca squads.
The core of each team – U19/U20 boys, U19/20 girls, U17 girls, and U-13 girls –has been a part of Team Boca, the travel component of the Soccer Association of Boca Raton, since their inception.
Many came straight out of SABR as 7-year-olds and will now find themselves vying for national championships from July 19th – July 25th.
Mario Rincon, coach of the 13U team and Director of Coaching for Team Boca, called it a “fantastic honor.” The U19/20 boys and the U13 advanced by winning the Southern Regional titles in Greenville, South Carolina. The remaining two squads advanced based on their performances in qualifying leagues despite not winning Southern Regional championships.
“It is a credit to the kids, to our directors, to our families and again, it’s been a unique year, starting last June, we had no idea if we were going to be able to do this,” Rincon said. “We persevered and we were able to get results and they did a fantastic job.
“We have the most teams from the state of Florida at Nationals this year,” he added. “We were the only girls’ team to win a regional championship from Florida and the boys did as well. It was a great opportunity and we took advantage of it. Having four teams at nationals is fantastic.”
Team Boca U-19/20s girls won their group with a 2-0-1 record. They crushed Cajun Rush 02G Academy (Louisiana), 7-0, and then fell to Sparta FC 02 Elite (North Texas), 1-0 in penalty kicks in the semifinals.
Girls Under 17’s Trust SABR’s Player Development Process
The Team Boca U17s girls also won their group going 2-0-1 and downed FC Premier 04G (North Texas), 4-0 in the quarterfinals and downed Arkansas Rising Soccer Club 04G, 1-0 to advance to the finals where they fell to CFC Red Star 04G Elite (Georgia) in the title match. Gabriella Shegota registered seven goals in six games to lead the squad. Her father Ivan grew up in the program as well.
“We performed well in pressure situations and represented the state of Florida in a first-class fashion,” said Team Boca coach Patrick Baker, who coaches both the U17 and U19 teams.
“It is super cool to be going to Nationals because this is the first time with our team,” said U17 goalkeeper Ashley Small, 15, of Boca Raton. She is a sophomore at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. “It is really crazy to have four teams going. “It is really good for the club since this is definitely the first year that this has happened at all. I think in previous years, the older girls team is the only team that went.”
Alex Sanchez, 17, of Boca Raton and senior at Boca Raton High School, started playing for Team Boca when she was in the fourth grade. It is her second year on the U17 team.
“We literally couldn’t be more excited,” Sanchez said. “I am new to this group of girls. I have been playing with the 2003s and I just joined this group last year. Unfortunately, we had such a promising season and probably done well at state cup if corona hadn’t canceled everything.
“There are a lot of players on my team that started with the club literally when they were starting soccer,” Sanchez added. “I think it just shows that you have to trust the process and you can develop such a strong bond. Like some of the girls have been playing together for 10 years and it just shows through hard work and determination you can eventually find your spot and this year we did.”
Girls Under 19/20’s Return to National Championships
The U19 Team Boca girls lost in the regional semifinals but qualified for Nationals by winning a playoff spot last March in Orlando. They won their bracket as well and didn’t give up a goal in five games.
“Unfortunately, we lost on PKs to Sparta (NTX) and were eliminated,” Baker said of the U19s loss at regionals. “We played some high-level soccer and feel great about the combination of players that will get a second chance at a USYS Championship.”
Katherine Bielec, 19, whose mom Jennifer served as the President of SABR for five years, also began playing for Team Boca when she was 8. She started playing SABR when she was 4.
“I think it is really cool and a great opportunity especially since it is our last year playing together on Team Boca,” Bielec said. “It’s been a really good last run for us from state cup to regionals to nationals. It is really cool to see how far along we have all come since we were U9 and the core of us have stayed best friends and been along with this journey since we were 8 years old.”
During her Team Boca career, the core group has had four coaches and each offered something different.
“I think it is definitely important to have certain coaches at certain levels,” she added. “I think when you are young you really need to start loving the sport. You don’t need to be yelled at and screamed at like for every mistake you make. When you get older, you need to be corrected more. It is important to have a good coach when you are younger too where they can teach you the game and not make you want to quit. I loved sharing the best moments of my life and will always remember the friendships.”
Girls Under 13’s Have 5-Year Bond Together
The U13 girls’ team swept through the competition winning all of their games and outscoring the opposition, 16-0 at regionals. The team registered six shutouts in six-game behind goalkeepers Kenslee Ward and Kennedy McCausland. Juliana Ligouri scored the winning goal against Solar for the title.
McCausland, 12, who will enter the seventh grade at American Heritage-Delray in the fall, started her Team Boca career on the U9 white team as a midfielder and after two years on the navy teams for her age group, she transitioned back to the white team as a goalkeeper.
“I wasn’t really focused on being a goalie,” added McCausland, whose older sister Calista is on the U17 team. “I tried being a goalie once and it just fit. When I was a midfielder, there were so many places to go on the field. Then I became a goalie. I think playing midfield helped me with my footwork.
“Winning southern regionals was amazing,” she added. “When we first started, it was hard to think we got that far. It was a really big challenge. We got to the first game and we won like 3-0. It was a big challenge and the last couple of games were really challenging.”
Mia Conard, 13, of Pompano Beach, started playing with Team Boca on the U9 team. Looking back, she said the thing she most remembers is “scoring goals and made good friends early.”
“It’s been awesome because it makes me a better player to play with them for five years,” Conard said. “Winning regionals was honestly a team effort. We just worked together really well and we will have to do the same to win nationals.
“I don’t know if we really appreciated it,” she continued. “Nobody realized how we could go this far until after we played the first game.”
Boys Under 19/20’s Led by Boca High Grad
Boca Raton’s Mitchell Monteiro, 18, has played with the club for six years and netted goals in five consecutive games at the regional championships, including the game-winner in the semifinals and finals.
“Every game felt like a championship because if you lose, you go home,” said Monteiro, who graduated from Boca Raton High School and is headed to Chaminade University in Hawaii. “Going to nationals is a great experience because everyone doesn’t get to experience it.”
Team Boca lost to Strikers Miami FC in the state cup but qualified as a wild card for regionals and wound up avenging its defeat and topping them for the regional championship.
“Unfortunately, it ended short in state cup, but going into regionals as a wildcard, nobody expected us to perform,” Monteiro said. “Clearly we deserved to be there and we went there and we won and now are going to nationals.”
“The boys did a great job of embracing the opportunity and challenge, and maintained their discipline and desire to win throughout the tournament,” said Team Boca boys coach Keith Fries. “Six victories in seven days is not easy. The boys were deserving.”
Fort Lauderdale’s Steven Noguera, 19, is in his seventh year at Team Boca after starting at U12s.
“Honestly it been a roller coaster with a year of ups and downs,” Noguera said. “It was just crazy to close with such a prestigious finale and win the Southern Regionals.”
Noguera said dealing with COVID for the past year and having last year’s state championships canceled due to the pandemic was difficult.
“Honestly, I was grateful to go out of state to even travel and play in a tournament after everything that has been going on with COVID and the protocols,” he said. “At first when we came out it was weird to be able to see my teammates again and play. We stuck like glue again and became a team.”
Each summer US Youth Soccer crowns boys and girls national champion in each of its seven age divisions (13U, 14U, 15U, 16U, 17U, 18U, and 19U).
The finals are a culmination of a year-long series of competitions at the state and regional levels known as the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series which provides approximately 185,000 players on 10,000 teams from US Youth Soccer’s 55 State Associations the opportunity to showcase their soccer skills against the best competition in the nation.