By Karen Billing
The 2013 US Youth Soccer National Champion Del Mar/Carmel Valley Sharks GU 17 Elite girls team has been playing together for five years — traveling all over the country and world from Hawaii to Sweden. In July, the close-knit, "fiercely competitive" team will defend its championship in the national tournament in Germantown, Maryland.
The tournament will cap an accomplished five years together and serve as a farewell to six departing seniors: Angel Meriweather, Dominique DeCoy, Rachel Carroll, Jennifer Ballez, Mari Briggs and Hailey Harbison.
"This team has many strengths on the field. They are technical and play a very appealing style of soccer to watch. They are dynamic going forward with great speed and power and they transition to strong team defense when they loose the ball. They play on both sides of the ball very well," said coach Felicia Kappes. "The fact that they have played together so long gives them the added advantage of knowing each other's strengths on the field."
Kappes has added talented players each year, but the team's makeup has not changed dramatically over the years and they have continued to grow and develop together.
They are more like sisters than teammates.
When Gianni Montini shared a story with a visitor last week, the whole team giggled because all 18 already knew all the details.
"What impresses me most about this team is that they are great young women who love each other more as a family does. They have been through so much and have so many special experiences and memories together," Kappes said. "They are wonderful role models for our younger Sharks teams, great student-athletes in the classroom, and they take pride in representing the DMCV Sharks both locally and nationally."
Typically the team practices three to six days a week, depending on what competition they are preparing for. To ready for nationals, the team underwent "total immersion" training recently.
Special training included a strength and conditioning program at The Catalyst Training Center run by San Diego State alumna Alicia Piz, team beach runs, watching World Cup matches together, a game against West Coast Futbol Club in Orange, and scrimmages throughout San Diego and Orange County.
The team also went through a "7 Fundamentals of Mental Toughness" course created by Advance Sports Technology Inc. (AST). Jim Madrid, CEO and founder of AST, has worked with Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders and UCLA, as well as many other successful organizations and sports programs.
Madrid came in to speak to the girls at the Sharks office in Sorrento Valley on June 23. The girls were fully engaged in a circle around Madrid, all in matching shirts, shorts and blue Adidas shoes.
Gianna said of all the concepts in the mental toughness program, the "Broaden your comfort zone" concept stood out the most to her; team member Jennifer Ballez said she got the most from the lesson on self-talk and affirmations — "What you say is what you get."
"When we played West Coast, our whole energy level was heightened and we all played really well," Jennifer said.
Using the U.S. men's team's experience in the World Cup match versus Portugal on June 22 as an example, Madrid talked about avoiding mental collapses by playing the full game physically and mentally until the final whistle blows.
With a potential 2-1 victory for the U.S. only seconds away, a defensive mental error led to the equalizing goal for Portugal and ended the match in a draw.
Madrid said it makes a big difference the way players think.
"Try to have 5 percent more consciousness, 5 percent more self respect and accountability… 5 percent more energy being an active player out there," said Madrid. "The impact is incredible."
Madrid's program also stresses that positive self-talk Jennifer mentioned, blocking out the negative thoughts, as well as affirmations.
He talked about 20-year-old defender DeAndre Yedlin on the U.S. team, whom he knows from the Seattle Sounders. His speed and focus were on great display during the Portugal match and it was his well-placed cross that led to a set-up for the U.S.'s second goal.
"(The announcers) kept talking about DeAndre's confidence. He has confidence because he knows what he's going to do. He has goals and visions of what he will accomplish and he works his affirmations," Madrid said.
He said it's not possible to visualize an entire game but he advised the team to visualize moments in the match and how confident they will be in those moments.
Kappes likely won't have to ask the girls twice to bring an extra 5 percent of intensity to the field.
"One of the best qualities this team is they hate to lose. They challenge each other individually to be stronger than all their opponents," Kappes said. "They are fiercely competitive in everything they do. That mentality keeps them in every game they play."
The road back to Nationals has been a long one, Kappes said, but the team decided from the beginning that they would enjoy the journey along the way, especially for the six seniors leaving the team.
Competition has been fierce, definitely more of a challenge given the fact that all teams are more motivated to defeat us since we are the defending national champions," Kappes said.
The team's most notable wins came as they qualified by coming in first place in the US Youth National League, the top league in the nation. Kappes said some of the top teams in the country play in this league and the squad was able to "grind out" results they needed in North Carolina and Las Vegas.
It has been tough, Kappes said, but the team has played very consistent and she believes they will be prepared when they leave for Maryland on July 21.
"The competition at Nationals is extremely tough and fierce with the best teams in the country playing five games in seven days," Kappes said. "Every game last year was a one-goal game and we had to come back from being behind in three of our games. It just tells you how hard it is to win the championship."
Kappes said the team is not focused on winning but on preparing correctly and enjoying its last competition with the senior players.
"Yes, our goal is to defend this championship but they already know they are champions and more importantly winners in life who have been blessed to have been a part of a very special team and organization," Kappes said.