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A record four youth soccer teams from Team Boca are headed to the US Youth Soccer National Championships at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
Team Boca, the travel component of the Soccer Association of Boca Raton, will send its U19/U20 boys, U19/20 girls, U17 girls and U-13 girls to the tournament that runs from July 19 to 25. The U19/20 boys and the U13 advanced by winning the Southern Regional titles in Greenville, South Carolina.
The remaining two squads advanced based on their performances in qualifying leagues despite not winning Southern Regional championships.
The U17 Team Boca girls’ team qualified for Nationals after making it to the Southern Regional finals, led by Gabi Shegota who registered seven goals in six games.
“We performed well in pressure situations and represented the state of Florida in a first-class fashion,” said Team Boca coach Patrick Baker, who coaches both the U17 and U19 teams.
“It is super cool to be going to Nationals because this is the first time with our team,” said U17 goalkeeper Ashley Small, 15, of Boca Raton. She is a sophomore at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. “We have an older group that went and we are following in their footsteps and especially with the younger Team Boca girls and the boys too.
“It is really crazy to have four teams going,” she said. “It is really good for the club since this is definitely the first year that this has happened at all. I think in previous years, the older girls’ team is the only team that went.”
The U19 Team Boca girls lost in the regional semifinals but qualified for Nationals by winning a playoff spot last March in Orlando. They won their bracket as well and didn’t give up a goal in five games.
“Unfortunately, we lost on PKs to Sparta (NTX) and were eliminated,” Baker said of the U19s loss at regionals. “We played some high-level soccer and feel great about the combination of players that will get a second chance at a USYS Championship.”
Boca Raton’s Maddy Kunz, 13, has been playing for the club since she was 7. The U13 team swept through the competition winning all of its games and outscoring the opposition 16-0 at regionals. The team registered six shutouts in six-game behind goalkeepers Kenslee Ward and Kennedy McCausland. Juliana Ligouri scored the winning goal against Solar for the title.
“It’s very cool going to Nationals because I didn’t think we’d get this far,” said Kunz, who will be an eighth-grader at Henderson School in the fall.
“We have grown a lot as a team,” she said. “We added a lot of new people this year and our game is different.”
Like Kunz, Boca Raton’s Adrianna Gonzalez, 13, will also head to Henderson School in the fall. She is also on the original U9 team that went undefeated.
“It took a lot of work for us to get to this point,” Gonzalez said. “We have a good bond with our team. We are all best friends I guess. The hotel stays are what I like the most besides the soccer part. You get to eat dinner and hang out with them the whole day.”
Mario Rincon, coach of the 13U team and the director of coaching for Team Boca, noted the program had the most girls from the state playing at Nationals this year. In the history of the US Youth Soccer Nationals, only a handful of clubs have sent as many teams.
“It is a fantastic honor for the community, the city of Boca Raton, and we get to represent the state and represent the region,” Rincon said. “It is a credit to the kids and the coaches for all of their hard work.
“It has been a unique year with COVID,” he said. “Our kids and our families have persevered and we were able and fortunate enough to get four teams to Nationals, which is one of the top in the country to do that. It is a great honor…having four teams at Nationals is fantastic.”
Boca Raton’s Mitchell Monteiro, 18, has played with the club for six years and netted goals in five consecutive games at the regional championships, including the game-winner in the semifinals and finals.
“Every game felt like a championship because if you lose, you go home,” said Monteiro, who graduated from Boca Raton High School and is headed to Chaminade University in Hawaii. “Going to Nationals is a great experience because everyone doesn’t get to experience it.”
Team Boca lost to Strikers Miami FC in the state cup but qualified as a wild card for regionals and wound up avenging its defeat and topping them for the regional championship.
“Unfortunately, it ended short in state cup, but going into regionals as a wildcard, nobody expected us to perform,” Monteiro said. “Clearly we deserved to be there and we went there and we won and now are going to Nationals.”
“The boys did a great job of embracing the opportunity and challenge, and maintained their discipline and desire to win throughout the tournament,” said Team Boca boys’ coach Keith Fries. “Six victories in seven days is not easy. The boys were deserving.”
Each summer US Youth Soccer crowns a boys’ and girls’ national champion in each of its seven age divisions (13U, 14U, 15U, 16U, 17U, 18U and 19U).
The finals are a culmination of a year-long series of competitions at the state and regional levels known as the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series that provides about 185,000 players on 10,000 teams from US Youth Soccer’s 55 State Associations the opportunity to showcase their soccer skills against the best competition in the nation.
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Emma Shirzad, 18, of Palm Beach Gardens, started playing with the club as an 8-year-old and is one of a half dozen girls from that original team still playing.
“It so cool because we are the original squad,” said Shirzad, a recent Benjamin High School graduate who is headed to Carnegie Mellon University in the fall.
She said she is grateful to have a season after COVID-19 canceled the state, regional and national competitions last year.
“Honestly, we were apprehensive,” Shirzad said. “We weren’t sure if it would happen at all. Once we heard it was happening, we thought we would get pretty far. In addition to many of the original players, we had some newcomers that came in and changed the game.”
This is the second trip to Nationals for the 19/20 age group. Shirzad and her teammates also went in 2019 but didn’t make it past bracket play. She said this year is different.
“I think everyone is getting ready for college in the fall, so we are all in really great shape and they want to put in the work,” Shirzad said. “We also have a lot of newcomers who bring something different to the table and energy. Everyone is competing to play. Winning Nationals would be great. It would be the icing on the cake.”