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Following a team of heroes

The US Women’s National Team may have just inspired the next generation of women’s soccer stars

OBSERVER File Photo Westfield/Brocton’s Juli Smith, left, controls the ball during a game last season.

This summer, the US Women’s National Team once again captivated the nation and took the world stage by storm to win yet another FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer title. A team that prides itself on excellence on the pitch and taking a stand for social causes off the field spent the past few weeks at the center of the sports world.

The team certainly had its share of support here locally, as well. Soccer fans of many ages were tuned in to watch the team in red, white and blue finish atop the world, where it has proven it belongs, for a record fourth world title.

Locally, as we saw a year ago, the Southern Tier is a hotbed for high school soccer. On the girl’s side alone, five of the six Section VI finalists in classes B1, B2 and C were from divisions in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Athletic Association, including all three Section VI champions in those respective classes, along with Class D Sectional champion North Collins. In addition, three of the four Class B finalists — Fredonia, Allegany-Limestone and Olean — were all from the same league, the CCAA West Division. Clearly, there is a ton of talent in girl’s soccer in our area.

“I always take great pride in the coaches and girls down here,” said Kevin Rice, head coach of the Silver Creek/Forestville varsity girls soccer team. “There’s a lot of girls down here with a ton of talent here.”

The success the US has had in the Women’s World Cup in recent years has only fueled the growth of what is already a strong local soccer scene. So what has this experience been like for young girls to watch their heroes captivate the attention of the rest of the sports world?

OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot Silver Creek’s Emma Rice soars to head the ball during a game last season. Rice graduated in June as Silver Creek’s all-time leading scorer. She now heads to Elmira College this fall to play women’s college soccer.

Brett Gould, head coach of the Fredonia Lady ‘Billies and a driving force behind the Concord FC soccer organization that features some of the best local players in the offseason, knows that this summer has gone a long way in terms of inspiring his young athletes.

“You dont just wake up and arrive on that stage. You put in the work and rely on your relationships,” said Gould. “Trust like that is developed long before you stepped on the field. … I’d be proud to have any one of those players talk to my kids about how they got there.”

One of the young athletes Gould is speaking of is his daughter, Ella. She was a co-captain of Fredonia’s Class B2 Sectional finalist team a year ago and will return this upcoming season for her senior year. Coach Gould said that Ella has read countless books about the players of the US Women’s National Team.

Coach Gould called every game the US played in the Women’s World Cup “family time in front of the TV,” referencing how his family would stop whatever they were doing leading up to the game, gather in the living room and watch the games together as a family.

“My eyes weren’t dry watching it,” said Coach Gould. “The inspiring thing for me has multiple layers. First of all, it lifts me up as a human, seeing who they are as people. To carry themselves the way they do as people is inspiring.”

OBSERVER Photo by Ron Szot Fredonia’s Ella Gould kicks the ball during a game during the 2018 regular season, in Fredonia. Ella Gould will return this year for her senior season.

Coach Gould cited an interview of US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, where she spoke about teammate Rose Lavelle’s goal in the Women’s World Cup Final. Gould said, “The tears in her eyes were immediate,” and highlighted the perception of the relationships between everyone on the National Team.

“That’s special, to see a teammate talk about another teammate and have that kind of joy and care,” said Gould. “If you want to be special, develop that level of trust.”

Kevin Rice shared the sentiment of the USWNT’s key to success.

“Part of the reason they’re so good is they’re so in tune with each other. They’re not about themselves. They don’t care about the statistics, they just want to win,” said Coach Rice. “They’re just really competitive and really good.”

The US wasn’t just a great story of teamwork, it was yet another example of how dominant the athletes in the US — men or women — can be. The United States did not lose in the Women’s World Cup, winning every match. In fact, the US never even trailed once throughout the entire tournament.

“It was very entertaining to watch,” said Westfield/Brocton girls soccer coach Neil Huber. “I was a little shocked at what they did against Thailand,” he said, referencing the 13-0 blowout to kick off the World Cup for the US.

That blowout victory for the US sparked attention world-wide, not just for the score itself, but for the celebrations of the US women after every goal.

“We were awestruck, blown away, I’m not even sure how to describe the way they shellacked Thailand,” Kevin Rice said. “They got a lot of slack for that, but I look at that and think ‘It’s not my fault if your program is not that good. If you’re that good — like the US is — what are you supposed to do?’ … Your whole mentality to be ready as an athlete is to always be your best, to always present your best product. If you’re really good at what you do, there isn’t any way to stop it.”

While Coach Huber admits it’s not as fun to be in a game like that as it would be in a more competitive setting, that performance certainly got the attention of sports fans around the world. That fact can be seen as a positive for the growth of soccer in the US.

“They’re fun. They’re not afraid to say how good they are — and they shouldn’t be,” said Coach Gould of the US Women’s National Team. “When you’re on that stage, you should enjoy it. When you think of all the work they put in to get there, all of the sacrifices that not only they made, but the people they rely on and trust to help them get there. … They deserve to enjoy it. They should be proud.”

Like Brett Gould, Kevin Rice has coached both of his daughters, Abby and Emma, on the Silver Creek/Forestville varsity girls soccer team. Emma Rice graduated this year after a five year varsity soccer career playing for her father, where she set school records in goals, assists and total points at Silver Creek. She will be playing college soccer at Elmira College. Both Emma and Abby also played offseason soccer together on the Lake Shore Lightning.

“We watched quite a few of the games together. We were totally tuned in,” said Kevin Rice about watching the tournament with his daughters. “They hate watching soccer with me sometimes because I talk too much,” he joked.

From the very beginning, the United States left quite the impression.

“What impressed both of my girls and the girls I train is, you’re talking about the number one team in the world, and they play with so much intensity. … There’s never a moment where they’re resting on their laurels or being complacent,” said Kevin Rice. “They just play with their foot on the pedal all the time. … What’s harder than winning at first is the sustained greatness. It’s hard mentally and emotionally to prepare girls to be great over and over again.”

Soccer in the US — men’s or women’s — has always struggled to sustain the attention it generates during the World Cup. However, that may change moving forward, with so much emphasis being put on the game at youth levels through high school.

“It’s hard to grow the game in the US,” said Huber, who admitted he was one of the few players interested in soccer when he was a kid. Huber said that the game didn’t quite get the attention it does now until the US hosted the Men’s World Cup in 1994.

Now, Huber says it is a completely different story, with many young athletes showing an interest in soccer.

“Locally, I know there’s a lot of girls interested in soccer,” said Huber, who expects 22 girls on his squad this year, despite nine seniors graduating from a year ago. “Everything I’ve seen (during the Women’s World Cup) has been good, not just for women’s soccer in the US, but for soccer as a whole,” he said.

One key to the growth is the players who have captivated the audience’s attention, such as Megan Rapinoe.

“I think Megan Rapinoe’s play stood out to Emma. She was kind of my kids’ idol. … I know Emma loved watching her and Tobin Heath, with her ability on the ball,” said Kevin Rice, who claims he has been watching women’s soccer since the late 80s and early 90s. “The game has drastically changed for the better. The style has gotten much more tactical. … You’re seeing girls who are a lot smarter, better skilled, and it leads to much better soccer,” he said.

For coaches like Gould, Huber and Rice, watching the World Cup has its benefits to their respective teams. Gould and Rice each said they spoke about the games with their offseason club teams in training sessions, while Huber claims seeing the world’s top teams compete at the highest level gave him ideas for his own strategy as a coach.

“Last year’s Men’s World Cup gave me some ideas that I used last season, and this year, the Women’s World Cup has given me some ideas for this season,” said Huber.

The hard part for the young athletes in our area compared to the National Team, however, is their main job is in the classroom, not on the pitch. That work comes first.

“When you’re talking about kids, they can’t just play the sport. They’re full-time students first,” said Gould. “The Women’s National Team put the work in to get there, to be stars like they are. Now our girls know what it takes to be like their heroes.”

Twenty years ago, the United States won the 1999 Women’s World Cup on home soil at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, inspiring a group of young women across the country to look up to women’s soccer stars as idols for what may have been the first time. Now, twenty years later, the 2019 US Women’s National Team may have just done the same for young women all across the nation. The sky is the limit for what that inspiration may lead to.

Twitter: @bradencarmen

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