The Hereford Cobras Under-15 girls travel soccer team took a long road trip in June, well beyond the kind of excursion most youth teams would ever attempt, visiting France, Italy and Switzerland on a whirlwind eight-day tour.
The Cobras, however, are exceptional in many other regards as well, including on the pitch where they reeled off 21 straight victories during the school year against local competition and added two more in France before finally falling, 2-1, to a Swiss side in their final game in Europe.
In between matches, the teens, all of whom hail from the Hereford Zone, took in a host of sights and participated in a slew of activities, such as paragliding in Chamonix, hiking, jumping off bridges and rocks into water, white-water rafting on the Dranse River and even bungee jumping.
The trip was the brainchild of Hereford coach Eric van den Beemt, who admits to some anxiety about "how to properly balance soccer, sightseeing, social interaction and playtime" as 16 players, three members of ProActive Travel, a sports travel agency in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and parents — for a total entourage of 52 — headed abroad together.
Even with professional help, the logistics of organizing and shepherding such a large group around the continent were daunting
"I'm not sure how I did it, but it worked wonderfully," van den Beemt said.
So did his original carrot-and-stick approach that introduced the idea to parents and players.
"When I started the team, I mentioned at our first parent meeting that if the players practiced regularly, had a determination to succeed and kept a positive attitude they could achieve marvelous things," he said. "I held out the possibility of a trip to Europe if we developed competitively."
After presenting a sample itinerary and cost estimate, van den Beemt figured out ways to raise money to help defray costs.
"The cost per family was a stretch for some in our group, and we addressed this two years ago when we started fundraising for the trip," he said. "I set up separate 'accounts' for each family, so each was invited to participate or not for each of our fundraising programs. Some families were much more involved than others, but they were rewarded for their active participation.
Van den Beemt said the team ended up raising almost a third of the total cost, or $40,000.
"We held a raffle and sold tickets both individually and as a group at Graul's Supermarket," he said. "We sold pizza products and greeting cards, held fundraisers at local restaurants, and had bake sales and giant yard sales. We ran a beer stand at Ravens games last year, and worked for tips. Finally, we made direct appeals to local businesses, friends and family. "
Graul's customers, he said, "were very supportive."
For the girls, the trip was all that they expected — and more.
"It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," said Cat Monti, 14, a midfielder-stopper from Upperco. "I can share stories about it some day with my husband, kids and grandkids."
A self-described "adrenaline junkie," Cat's most thrilling moment won't have to be embellished to enhance the drama, considering she has photos to prove she actually took a 720-foot plunge while bungee-jumping off the Verzasca Dam in Ticino, Switzerland.
"Scariest seven seconds of my life," she quipped about the jump her nervous father and assistant coach, Vito, refused to watch.
Even the loss, decided by penalty kicks, was a beneficial experience for Cat and the Cobras.
"When you lose as a team, you have someone else to lean on," she said.
Monkton resident Marissa Inglisa, also 14, and many of her teammates limited their thrills to paragliding.
She claims that "jumping off the mountain wasn't scary at all" but that she "would never bungee jump."
Marissa said that the trip closed an important part of her life.
"It was educational and fun," she said. "It was a great experience and our last time being all together before we join our high school teams. It's a good way for this part of our soccer experience to end."