The Wilson Youth Soccer Explosion Girls U16 team’s summer season did not end with a victory. But it did end with a group of girls writing a new chapter of history in Wilson County Soccer.
The Explosion, in capturing the U.S. Youth Soccer Region III championship in late June, became the first team in WYSA club history to earn a trip to the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series in Orlando, Florida.
The Explosion opened group play Tuesday with a 2-1 win over NJ Premier FC before dropping its next two games to RUSA FC Gold and Greater Libertyville Soccer Association FC to finish 1-2. But Wilson, led by head coach Randol Mendoza and assistant coach Eric O’Brien, left everything out on the field, and got a chance to represent WYSA on the national stage to cap off a historic season.
“I was just happy that the event got to see the style of soccer that we bring to the table,” Mendoza said. “We didn’t come out here and just fold and not give it 100%. The girls stood their ground and played the way we are accustomed to playing. So to see them play at this level, the coaching staff, the team manager (Robin Bunn), the director of WYSA (Chris Mizelle), we’re all so proud of what they’ve accomplished, because it’s been a unique ride this season. We know it’s going to pay dividends when you think about this team in one or two years.”
Getting to play in the National Championship Series should prove to be valuable experience going forward for the WYSA players.
Mendoza recalled hearing Michelle Akers, a member of the 1999 United States Women’s World Cup championship team, speak about her own experiences at the NCS, which included losing in the group stage her first year, the quarterfinals her second and the semis her third.
“It’s the experience, the losses, the atmosphere, the competitive nature of participating in an event like this, it will pay dividends in what’s to come in this following season,” Mendoza said. “… It just tells you, Michelle Akers is probably one of the best national team players in women’s history that was part of that 1999 team. That kind of resonated with me, that this is a hard competition. It is grueling because everyone that’s in this is really good. Everyone has special players. For us, we came up short in our first try. I know that we’ll be back here and we’ll be better prepared when we start thinking about the next season, but I’m certain we’ll be back.”
For the Explosion players, the NCS was an opportunity to play against teams and players from across the country, test themselves and learn lessons against top competition that should help them in their future soccer careers with WYSA and elsewhere.
“It was very exciting,” said WYSA defender Cappa Bunn. “It was very eye opening to see other teams from across the nation and being able to play with people on the same level as we are. It was very fun to compete, and I think every single one of our players is very grateful that we got this opportunity, and that hopefully we’ll be back next year.”
The nationals experience should begin to pay dividends for the players even beyond getting a chance to compete on the national stage for WYSA again.
The U16 team is largely made up of rising high school sophomores and juniors, and the experience gained in Orlando should make them better players going into their next high school seasons.
“It’s something about coming out here and seeing all these teams, seeing all these players and seeing all of the styles of play from different parts of the country,” Mendoza said. “It’s going to help them, because we reached the pinnacle in year two of our time with the girls. So when we think about these players next year, whether it’s in club soccer or high school soccer, they’re going to be used to playing at such a high level, it’ll raise their game. And they’ll be better players because of it.”
For the Explosion, getting a chance to play in Orlando was a chance to represent not just Wilson County, and the level of soccer being played locally, but the state of North Carolina, on the national stage.
“To us, it was a really big thing knowing we were the only people to get here and represent Wilson and make it a big opportunity for us,” said forward Maddie Brown.
As the only team from North Carolina in the NCS, and the first in WYSA history to go, the group felt an overwhelming level of support from back home.
“I can’t say enough thank yous for everybody,” Mendoza said. “The support from the city of Wilson, from soccer families, from organizations like the Tobs, Mayor (Carlton) Stevens, everybody has sent us messages along the way. We’re so grateful, because they’ve worked hard to get to this point, and to now have a city and state behind us and rooting for us, it was very, very special. We wish that it would have ended a little bit differently to give everybody justice, but we felt the support.”
In taking WYSA to new heights this season, the Explosion players also know that they set an example for younger players in Wilson County, who could look to follow in their footsteps in the years to come.
“I think that this probably set the younger generation of soccer in Wilson to a new standard,” Cappa Bunn said. “When it comes to WYSA as a whole for everyone to see that one of our teams has been to nationals, and maybe they could do it too if they work that hard. I just think it’s kind of cool to be an inspiration to all the other kids playing soccer in Wilson.”