When Tom Schiltz was asked two years ago if some members of his girls youth soccer team would be interested in going to Europe as part of an under-17 select squad, he knew that they would reject the idea.
Nothing against Europe, mind you. It's just that, as Schiltz put it, "If we were ever going to do something like that, the girls would rather go as a team. They've been a team since they were 7 years old, and they want to stay as a team."
Schiltz's instincts were right. The group -- known the past few years as Bennie and The Jets -- voted to remain together, and after entering the necessary qualifiers and raising enough money, it departed BWI Airport Tuesday for London and a 20-day odyssey that includes stops in Sweden and Denmark.
"They are all so excited, it's incredible. It's hard keeping them down and keeping their minds on soccer," said Schiltz, who coached Old Mill's junior varsity team for five seasons before resigning last year.
Seven of the players -- Natalie Bell, Lisa Gallicchio, Amanda Kopchinski, Lauren Spears, Jennifer Johansen, Lori Wimbrow and Jackie Bardelli -- have been together since the team's inception 10 years ago, when it was known as the Greater Glen Burnie Hurricanes. Bardelli, a goalie, was unable to make the trip.
Four years ago, the team changed its nickname to Patriots, formed the Chesapeake Bay Soccer League and began competing as an independent.
That's when Schiltz received a letter from officials at Old Mill, which most of the girls attend and has Patriots as its nickname, saying that the moniker could not be used.
While in the process of finding a new name, the team was playing in a tournament when a player asked Schiltz about a future opponent.
"Jokingly, I said that the next team we play is Bennie and The Jets, and they didn't bat an eye. They just wanted to know if they were any good," Schiltz said.
"They weren't even familiar with the [Elton John] song. But since then, they've all had recordings and learned to sing it."
The team competed during the indoor and outdoor seasons, finding success at every level. Starting at age 13, it even played against boys indoor teams, finishing second in the league in the second year.
It was after an indoor game in the winter of 1991 that Schiltz was approached by a scout from Sports Challenge -- a national youth tour group that puts together select teams -- and asked about taking six of the girls overseas. "We had a meeting with the kids and the parents, and we all agreed that, yes, we're going to do Europe, but we're going to do it as a team," Schiltz said.
To qualify for the trip, Bennie and the Jets played in the Baltimore Beltway League against under-19 teams and entered various tournaments.
The group then had to come up with nearly $40,000 to cover expenses. The fund-raising began in January 1992, and included car washes, candy bar sales, book sales, Christmas flower and plant sales, flea markets, bake sales, pledges and "standing out in the street, begging for money," Schiltz said. The girls even wrote to corporate and government officials.
"We had sponsorship offers from beer distributors, but we refused. We didn't feel that, at 17, the girls should have [brands of beer] on the backs of their jerseys."
They raised $34,000, and the parents contributed the rest.
That done, the players could concentrate on getting ready for what is a new experience for most of them. As a team, they never had traveled farther than Virginia.
"We have girls who have never flown and who have never been on a boat," Schiltz said.
The squad will compete in two tournaments -- the 865-team Gothia Cup in Sweden and the 750-team Dana Cup in Denmark. Bennie and the Jets is the only under-17 representative from Maryland, and one of only eight teams from the U.S. competing in that age bracket.
"I'd be very satisfied if we play .500 ball. We'll be competing against some teams that already have established their future World Cup women's teams," he said.
Other members of Bennie and The Jets are Denise King, Sara Saghirian, Kerri Eland, Carrie and Jenny Klimes, Danielle Ohlhues, Kerri Smith and Kim and Kristin Wimbrow.
"This is the culmination of 10 years," Schiltz said. "When we get off the plane here, coming back, we're never going to play together again. This is the last hurrah for us."