The Sudbury Regional Competitive Soccer League (SRCSL) needs more teams like the S.C. Italia Blazers U-14 Girls. Now in just their second year of "official" existence, the Blazers withstood a very challenging first year and through the quirks of SRCSL divisional play, now find themselves playing in a bulk of extremely competitive games.
Unlike some other minor sports leagues in the Sudbury area, the SRCSL must take a look at the divisional alignments on a year by year basis, trying to sort out a reasonable mix of teams to form the groupings of various age brackets. It is a common practice to not only have multiple age classifications competing within the same division, but often times, a cross-over of genders with girls teams and boys teams combined together with far more regularity than all involved would prefer.
Ironically, the Blazers owe their humble beginnings to a true Panhellenic "mixed" team, a U-12 crew two years back that literally fielded a split roster. Although four to five young ladies remain from that squad, S.C. Italia Blazers came together last year as a team assembled by then head coach and long-time local soccer player and bench boss Mario Anselmo.
Stocking the balance of the S.C. Italia roster with players from the Sudburnia ranks and a handful with competitive experience with the Sudbury Canadians organization, Anselmo "brought this team together", in the words of current head coach Mitch Paradis, an assistant under Anselmo's tutelage one year ago.
Playing in a division that contained primarily full-fledged boys teams, most of whom possessed at least some experience of playing together, the Blazers struggled through the summer of 2007. "It was a challenge", admits Paradis. "The boys represented a different type of game, a stronger game."
Despite the numerous setbacks, a solid core of the girls stayed together throughout the winter, competing within the indoor soccer ranks and allowing Paradis and company to hit the ground up and running this spring. Even more importantly, the Blazers joined forces with the Panhellenic Thunder (U-13), S.C. Italia Diavoli (U-13), Rayside Rebels (U-14) and Greater Sudbury Canadians United (U-12) to form an all-female division of play within the SRCSL.
The divisional makeover, combined with the natural progress one would expect as the Blazers continue to develop, has made for a much more enjoyable summer of soccer the second time around. "Everything is improving - the control of the ball, players taking more steps with the ball, the idea of supporting the ball - our defense has been phenomenal this year", says Paradis.
With Anselmo unable to commit the time to coaching this summer that he would like, Paradis acknowledges that he inherited a team with a solid grasp of the fundamentals of soccer. And the move from assistant coach to head coach has been a positive experience for the long-time soccer competitor. "It's fun - I really like coaching...it's a good way to relieve stress" laughs Paradis, although some might contend it adds more than diminishes stress levels.
Of course, having players buy in to what he is trying to preach makes the role of head coach much more rewarding. "For the most part, the girls play the way I want them to play. Sportsmanlike - out there to win, but not at all costs", explains Paradis.
Along with a slew of more competitive outings in league play, the S.c. Italia Blazers also enjoyed an early season highlight, capturing the Muskoka Early Summer Tournament in Bracebridge at the end of May. The team went undefeated, picking up three straight wins en route to the title, including a huge confidence-booster in the final.
Lindsey McCann scored the only goal of the opening game, allowing S.C. Italia Blazers to drop Bracebridge 1-0. The Blazers made it back to back shutouts, winning game two 4-0 as Vanessa Lagana, Michael Penwarden-Watson, Alyssa McMullen and Lindsey McCann all found the back of the net for the Sudbury crew.
But the victories propelled the Blazers into a championship encounter matchup with Sudbury's own S.C. Italia Diavoli, a team which generally has gotten the better of the cross-town namesakes. Regulation time was followed by two five minute overtime sessions, leaving the hard fought contest to be decided on penalty kicks.
Carly Zubalich and Julie-Anne Paradis scored for the Blazers and keeper Jessica Chretien registered three shutouts to help backstop the team to victory. The tournament provided a valuable jump start to a team that had rarely tasted victory in the previous 12 months.
Where last place was virtually a foregone conclusion at the beginning of last season, Paradis believes the team is capable of shooting for 3rd place in the five-team loop this summer. "Second (place) would be icing on the cake", according to Paradis.
With an entire roster that will make the transition to the demands of secondary school studies, and all of the extra-curricular activities that accompany the move to high-school, Paradis knows that it may be even more challenging moving forward to keep this group together.
"There is so much potential when they all work together", Paradis admits. Like a good number of soccer coaches in Sudbury, Paradis is taking advantage of the opportunity to work closely with one of his own children as daughter Julie-Anne makes the switch from keeper to stopper this summer.
The reason? A very common one amid youngsters who attempt goaltending for the first time. "It was too boring - on defense, I can do a lot more running", explains one of the team's co-captains, sharing the role with returnee Victoria Falvo. In the meantime, Jessica Chretien has stepped in to provide a consistent last line of defense for the Blazers.
Not too surprising, the younger Paradis is pleased with the divisional re-alignment, even if it finds her team facing some opponents fielding U-12 and U-13 rosters. "It's good because it's more of our level. It doesn't really bother us because we know we've only been together for a couple of years", Julie-Anne explains.
When pressed for a team goal for this summer, Paradis admits that "making it to the finals" would be a great close to the second season of Blazers soccer. Of course, many might suggest that just making it through for a second year was the accomplishment in and of itself. Either way, competitive soccer in Sudbury needs more teams like this.
The 2008 roster for the S.C. Italia BLazers includes: Vanessa Lagana, Kyla MacKenzie, Brigid Conroy, Carly Zubalich, Victoria Falvo, Maija Tonelli, Julie-Anne Paradis, Stephanie Mercier, Paige Goodmurphy, Alessandra Dynes, Michaela Penwarden-Watson, Renee Hechler, Alyssa McMullen, Jennifer McCann, Lindsey McCann, Haley Cassio, Dominique Landry and Jessica Chretien.
The coaching staff includes head coach Mitch Paradis, assistant Carrie Hechler and manager Karen Lagana.