In two years, both the Albemarle and Western Albemarle girls and boys soccer programs have won VHSL state titles. Throw in a dash of Charlottesville High’s boys making a run to the state final four earlier this month and it’s clear that the path to soccer prominence in the state of Virginia runs through Albemarle County.
Now two groups of many of those players with some other players also in the mix, are combining forces to see if they can take that Virginia dominance to a national stage.
The Soccer Organization of Charlottesville-Albemarle (SOCA) has boys and girls U-17 teams competing this weekend in Spotsylvania in the 2017 U.S. Youth Soccer Region I tournament that pits club teams from all over the Eastern seaboard with a trip to the national tournament in Texas on the line.
“I’m so excited, I think it’s so cool we’re going to see these extremely talented teams and hopefully come out on top,” said U-17 girls player and Albemarle rising senior Gracie Williams.
The girls squad will play in the tournament’s Group C, playing a New Jersey club Friday, a Maryland team Saturday and a Vermont squad Sunday. The boys squad starts Group D play against a squad from Rhode Island Friday, plays a team from Eastern New York Saturday and faces a team from New Hampshire Sunday. Win the group and each team would move on to the semifinals Monday and potentially the finals Tuesday.
The two teams, who both won the Virginia State Cup in the fall to qualify for this region tournament, are packed with players who played big roles for the Patriots, Warriors, Black Knights and a number of other local squads. That includes all-state players like Western boys’ Jed Strickland and Albemarle girls’ Fizzy Gonzalez. Strickland is joined by Albemarle standouts Andrew Weber and Daniel Starr while Gonzalez plays alongside Western standouts Jane Romness (the VHSL Group 3A player of the year), Elizabeth Fabiano and Julia and Katrine Berg.
Williams had been a forward for the Patriots before moving to defense this year for the state champions. Her versatility makes her a solid piece for SOCA’s U-17 squad, playing a variety of roles, whatever the squad needs. That’s part of what has made the girls squad particularly tough to beat.
“I think every person brings 110 percent effort every practice,” Williams said. “We all have this versatility and we respond well to adversity. We can pick each other up.”
Both teams were actually assembled only recently, with an age group shift in U.S. Soccer changing up the mix for both squads, connecting two different cores to form really balanced teams that both have strong chemistry despite only a short time playing together. When they got back together after their high school stints earlier in June, it didn’t take long for the girls to start clicking.
“The first practice was the hardest practice obviously but we did some team building and got comfortable,” Williams said. “It was like we had been practicing for months.”
For Western Albemarle’s Alex Moreno, another versatile player who stepped up to play forward for the Warriors this spring despite being a natural midfielder, getting back together with the boys U-17 squad was an eye-opening experience.
“It’ has been really cool seeing how people have developed with their high school teams, some people are more comfortable on the ball and in different roles,” Moreno said. “It’s been all about trying to find our chemistry again.”
Moreno’s job with the Warriors was to finish — he was the squad’s second leading scorer — but with the U-17 team his role is to create connections. With the offensive talent at the top of the formation that the squad has including Starr, that’s a fun role to play.
“We’re blessed with some really awesome offensive pieces,” Moreno said.
They’ve got some strong defensive pieces too, with Charlottesville’s Kyle Lehnert and Strickland. Throw in versatile players like Charlottesville’s Campbell Brickhouse and William Monroe’s Ahmed Zaatar.
With two deep, versatile rosters packed with players who have some significant experience playing tournament soccer after an awfully successful two years in the prep ranks, SOCA’s U-17 squads are now set to try and find their way to Texas. The journey takes its next step Friday as the teams try and make a little history — no SOCA team has won a Region I title.
This year, they might have the right mix to complete that mission, but staying focused on just moving forward is what will get them there.
“With the team that we have, we’re kind of playing for each other,” Moreno said. “If we could be the first team that brought the first regional title to SOCA, that’d be awesome. We’re just excited to keep playing, whatever first we make or history we make we’ll think about after, it’s more about playing for each other.”