Sometimes, when a soccer match comes down to penalty kicks and a goalkeeper and a challenger and a ball positioned only 12 yards away, good fortune has as much to do with determining the outcome as does skill and practice.
Just ask Shane Berson.
“Some of it is confidence and being confident in your ability,” said Berson, a goalkeeper. “I look at their body language and body shape and how they run up to the ball. But mostly it comes down to guessing and getting lucky.”
Berson has been guessing and getting lucky more often than not of late, which helps explain why the Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (CESA) 98 Premier boys team will contend for a national championship two weeks hence.
The under-16 squad became the sixth team in CESA’s 11-year history to capture a regional title last week when it outlasted the Houston Express 3-2 (3-1 on penalty kicks) in the title game of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region III Championships in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
Next stop? Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the National Championships July 21-26.
“This group has a lot of tangibles that really good teams have, but they also have some intangibles that teams vying for championships have to have,” said Nick Finotti, who has been coaching the team for three years. “Sometimes it’s about how the ball bounces — you have to have good fortune, and hopefully that will continue.
“But this team has good talent and good chemistry. It’s an intelligent group, and they work hard and are very coachable. All of them bring something to the table.”
Familiarity is part of the equation. The players have known one another for years, and seven members of the 15-player team attend the same high school — J.L. Mann in Greenville.
The Patriots are the defending Class AAAA state champions and are ranked No. 6 nationally among high school teams.
“We spend most of our lives together,” said Dean Sinatra, a rising junior at Mann. “Chemistry-wise that’s very helpful for us.”
The CESA 98 roster includes three players from Mauldin, two each from Riverside and South Aiken, and one from Berea.
All of the players have had their moments, but none more so than Berson and Sinatra in the regional championship match against a team from Houston, Texas, that draws from a talent pool considerably larger than CESA.
After falling behind 1-0, CESA tied the match on a header by Sinatra in the 53rd minute. Quinn McNeill, another Mann player, scored a go-ahead goal off an assist from Sinatra a minute later, but Houston tied the match, 2-2, shortly thereafter. After a 30-minute scoreless overtime, it was time for penalty kicks.
Berson thwarted the first Houston attempt.
“After the first save on the first shot, I felt pretty good about it,” said Berson, who received the Golden Glove Award given to the top goalkeeper. “And when our player made the first shot, I felt even better. I have faith my teammates to make the shots, and it worked out.”
Berson wound up saving goals on Houston’s third and fourth attempts as well while CESA hit the back of the net with three of its four attempts to seal the triumph, including another tally by McNeill, who received the Golden Boot Award for his play.
“Everyone came over and we were all piling on and hugging — it was great,” Berson said. “It was probably the best feeling after a game that we’ve ever had.”
Now they’d enjoy nothing more than a repeat performance.
“We’re pumped up for nationals and hoping to get something out of it,” Berson said.
Again, chemistry may pave the way.
“Our chemistry throughout the year was great,” McNeill said. “Even though we’re undersized, with our style of play and with the way we move the ball around, it’s not a matter of physicality. Our skill level allows us to be successful.”
Finotti says anything is possible with this group.
“There have only been 10 regional champions from South Carolina, and CESA has six of them, with this team being the sixth,” said Finotti, whose team is ranked No. 8 nationally among club teams by GotSoccer Magazine. “It doesn’t happen often, so it’s very special and we’re pretty proud of it.
“But I’m more proud for these players. They have great families and the families in this group are fantastic and have been very supportive. We train all the time. It has been great to watch them grow and I couldn’t be happier for them.”
CESA 98 PREMIER ROSTER
Nassim Alnawasreh, center forward, J.L. Mann
Christopher Amond, attacking midfielder, J.L. Mann
Shane Berson, goalkeeper, Riverside
Drake Byrd, left forward, J.L. Mann
Adam Calloway, center back, J.L. Mann
Brady Rider, center back, J.L. Mann
Trevor Watson, goalkeeper, Mauldin
Jared Gulden, defensive midfielder, Mauldin
Mitchell Myers, center back, South Aiken
Quinn McNeill, attacking midfielder, J.L. Mann
Brian Munson, left back, Mauldin
Joshua Brannon, right back, South Aiken
Juan Sanjuan, attacking midfielder, Berea
Dean Sinatra, right back, J.L. Mann
Dante Andre, right forward, Riverside