Alexis Nickole experienced an eerily familiar feeling when she stepped on the pitch at the US Club Soccer National Cup Championships in Colorado as a member of the New England Futbol Club North Shore.
A rising senior at the Pingree School in South Hamilton, Nickole made a return trip to the final last month at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City with NEFC North Shore.
And for the second straight year, the Saugus teen held her breath as penalty kicks decided the crown. A year ago, she watched as her team came up short in the tiebreaker. This year was different. The 5-foot-3 midfielder walked up to the line and blasted home a successful first penalty kick to help claim the Under-17 national crown.
“After last year’s finals, this was like déjà vu,” she said. “Getting back to this year’s final – getting back to [penalty kicks] – I think we knew we had it. We knew we had to win this time.”
With a final penalty kick save from Boxford’s Emily Hardy (Phillips Andover Academy) against Sting Dallas in the 17U Super Division,, NEFC North Shore secured the win, its redemption, and its national title as one of four NEFC girls’ teams to net Super Division titles.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Nickole said.
“As soon as Emily saved the last shot we stormed the field running toward her. It is a memory I will never forget. Getting back to having a feeling like that in soccer is definitely something that is going to drive my career.”
Nickole was one of six players from Pingree on the NEFC North Shore team that draws from the North Shore and Merrimack Valley. The squad is collection of both public and private high school players who make a year-round commitment to soccer.
NEFC also won national titles in the 13U, 15U and 16U age divisions with teams based throughout the state. NEFC West beat Sting Dallas in the 16U final, NEFC South stopped Sting Dallas in the 15U final, and a pair of NEFC teams clashed for the 13U crown with an NEFC statewide team edging NEFC South.
“The club does a really great job of setting the tone for all of us, as coaches, the parents, and staff that our goal is developing players for the next level,” said Dushawne Simpson, the 17U coach for NEFC North Shore who is also the varsity girls’ coach at Pingree.
“That can be different for different players. For some in high school, it may be gaining a starting position for the first time. For some, it might be playing in college or maybe professionally. As a club, we are all working together to get players to the next phase of their careers.”
Wilmington’s Tess O’Connell, who rang home the second successful penalty kick in the national final, will extend her playing career at the University of Rhode Island after completing her senior year at Pingree.
But this fall, a few of her NEFC North Shore teammates will be on the oppposing side when O’Connell takes the field for Pingree in the Eastern Independent League.
“You couldn’t tell that some of us were all rivals,” O’Connell said. “When we play together, we work together and play hard for each other. Then when we get back to high school we still want to win against them. After the game, we’re friends from club again. But on the field we are playing for our high school teams.”
O’Connell felt the experience helps sharpen her skills. Nickole said tournaments like the national club championships give her a better understanding of the game and how to manage it.
“It is definitely a whole different perspective compared with our league when you play the same teams every year,” she said. “It exposes you to different playing styles – teams we played used some different formations that we had never seen.
“Then when you get to nationals, it’s a different level of pressure,” Nickole continued. “It builds character to have to deal with that pressure. You have to raise your level of play, while still remaining calm and playing your game. It broadens your knowledge of the game.”
While Simpson allowed there is a benefit from a consistency-of-coaching standpoint that carries over from club to the high school season, he said there is no Pingree talk when the NEFC North Shore team is together. Instead, the goal is to work on increasing the skills of each individual player, knowing that ultimately the club team’s success will follow.
“It’s cut and dry,” he said. “When we go to competitions, we want to come home with the trophy. That is each coach’s philosophy to get it done. My philosophy is to get it done with everybody. We’re playing everyone. Not everyone is going to get equal minutes in a championship game, but everyone is expected to play and contribute.”
Scott Souza can be reached at ScottSouza@journalist.com