By Ray Hamill — In the midst of what has been a disappointing era for local travel teams, at least one group of players are doing their best to keep the tradition alive and thriving.
The AC Samoa U15 girls soccer team just completed its fall season, securing an undefeated league championship and closing out among the top-75 ranked teams out of 600 in the state of California.
The AC girls, who come from several different schools throughout the county, have been gradually building momentum in recent years, before exploding onto the big time this season.
And, according to head coach Nick Ortiz, it was a complete team effort.
“There is no doubt that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts of this team,” he said. “It never ceases to amaze me the team chemistry and the team cohesion they have, and that’s not something I can take credit for.”
Most of the girls have been playing together since they first joined the club as 10-year-olds, and have steadily grown as a team since then, quickly moving through the ranks from the Bronze division in the NorCal Premier League to the Silver division as 12-year-olds to the Gold division a year ago, to winning it all this season.
“These girls work really hard, and the parents do an awful lot of driving,” Ortiz said. “We’re very fortunate to have the dedication of the players and parents. That’s what makes it possible.”
The players travel twice a week to practice at Arcata, and play most of their games in the North Bay, although as their prestige has risen in recent years they now get more home games, which they play in Arcata or Scotia.
The U15s are one of five teams at the club, which, in the coach’s own words, seeks to attract kids who get “serious” about soccer at age 9 or 10.
“We start them out gently in highly structured academy groups that do pretty much the same ball skills curriculum that a pro Academy does,” Parker said.
This year, the club included a boys team at the under-14 level for the first time.
“Probably our most improved team this year,” Ortiz said of the U14s, whom he co-coaches with former Humboldt State player and assistant coach Trice Smith. “They’re some really fine young men, and they’ve really grown on me.”
The Samoa boys competed in the Bronze division in their debut campaign, placing third, and Parker expects them to move up in the coming years.
The AC Samoa U13 girls team also is coming off a big season under the guidance of Smith, debuting in the Gold division.
“They’re very tiny and very skilled,” Ortiz said. “Coach is trying to get them to play a very clever passing game, and I can’t wait to see what he’s able to bring out of them in the future … they have moments of sheer beauty.”
The U10/11 girls team, meanwhile, is more of an academy team this year, and a group that Parker sees as the foundation of the next AC Samoa team.
The fifth club team is U17 girls, which features many of the successful Eureka High team and will kick off its season early in the new year, a season that will include three college showcase events.
Most of the U17 girls expect to go on to play in college, and Parker’s team serves as preparation for that.
Ten of his former players are currently plying their trade in the college game, including a pair of them at the Division-I level, Jesse Bareilles at La Salle University in Philadelphia and Ashleigh Harrison at Boise State.
“The under-17s, they want to follow in their footsteps,” Parker said.
This year’s U15s are the youngest AC Samoa team to ever win the Gold division and will move up next year to face better competition in the Premier Division.
“Once you get to the Gold, a lot of teams have professional coaches, so to win the Gold division is a really good yardstick for us,” Parker said.