By Dan Plouffe
Ask a quartet of Ottawa South United Force under-14 girls’ soccer stars about their keys to success and the answer is: finding fun and friendship, alongside a crazy competitive drive.
Mya Angus, Felicia Hanisch, Naomi Lofthouse and Mia Ugarte recently played their last games for the Force, and they couldn’t have left with a much better final memory, having captured the Ontario Player Development League Charity Shield.
“We’ve got such a strong group,” underlines David Fox, coach of the squad that added the Shield playoff crown to their earlier league championship. “Everyone’s performed at such a high level, which is why we’ve been able to play and dominate the way we have.”
The Force U14 girls posted the best goal differential across all OPDL age divisions this season at +74, winning each contest by an average of nearly four goals. The next closest total out of all the province’s youth soccer teams was their opponents in the Charity Shield final, Brampton (at +63).
Playing indoors at the Ontario Soccer Centre, OSU fell behind 2-1 but got the next three goals before Brampton scored in the dying seconds to make the final score 4-3 on Saturday in Vaughan.
With a free-kick rocket from a distance where no U14 goalkeeper would expect to receive a blazing shot on net, Angus’s second goal of the game stood as the winner.
“It’s so exciting,” states the league-leading scorer who never loses confidence when her team falls behind. “Any of our games where we were down, our team would always push each other up, and then we’d get ahead and win the games. It happened a bunch of times.”
Co-captain Lofthouse created OSU’s second goal of the Shield final with her feed to Cindy Yang and scored the third herself.
“Everyone on the team pushes each other to work harder, every single training session,” highlights Lofthouse. “I think that’s why we’re one of the best teams. Everybody’s so competitive and everyone has that same mentality inside the club.”
“And we also all have fun while doing that,” adds Ugarte, who felt right at home when she joined the team several years ago after moving from the U.S. “It’s a really good environment.”
The players have built a very strong bond while carpooling to training and games, having fun while battling each other in practice, and just hanging out. Many players go to the same schools, and those that don’t enjoy playing and coaching against them with their school teams.
“A lot of us have played together since U7 at OSU. The team has remained basically the same,” signals Hanisch. “Our team cares so much about each other. And the coaches care so much about us and our improvement.”
The players recognize that they’ve been fortunate to have had many individuals put a lot of time into supporting them and helping them develop since a young age.
“It means a lot,” Ugarte underlines.
It’s not every youth soccer team that will have managers, executives and staff, goalkeeper coaches and past coaches who worked with the squad earlier in their careers, packing the sidelines on a weekend afternoon in the fall.
“I think it’s important that we always acknowledge everybody that’s involved in the process. There are so many people involved in the success we’ve had,” Fox indicates, likewise adding that it’s not just goal-scoring stars who powered the team, but a deep, fully-committed cast.
Four Force will join women’s national team training centre
Alongside the joy of a season-ending triumph came a hint of sadness, knowing that it’s the last time four of the Force’s top players will play for the team. Angus, Hanisch, Lofthouse and Ugarte were selected to join the Canadian women’s team’s national development centre (teammate Reese Kay, who’d been injured during the trials period, may join them eventually too).
“We’re like a family. We’re all so close to each other. We’re all so close outside of soccer too. And the coaches and staff are so amazing,” says Angus, who scored 25 goals this season. “It’ll be hard to leave that.”
The Ottawa group will be moving full-time to Toronto come January.
“We’ll miss them as players, but of course we want them to move on in their careers, and we can always train new players. It’s the people I miss most of all,” highlights Fox, who had numerous members of his older OSU team join the national centre recently. “You spend five days a week working with these these kids, so you obviously grow attached to the people you’re working with as well. They’re just great kids.”
When the final selections were made for the development centre, Fox called each player’s parents, and then the players all called each other.
“I almost cried. I was jumping up and down,” recounts Ugarte. “We can bring our bond from here to Toronto.”
“It’s really exciting that we all get to go together. I feel like it’ll be easier to adjust when you’re adjusting with people that you’re familiar with,” adds Hanisch, who will be moving in with her older sister Bianca, already a member of the national centre program.
A few players will live with family or friends in the GTA initially, though they would like to all bunk together if rooming arrangements with billet families open up come next school year.
“We’re so excited for this opportunity,” Angus states. “It’s going to be a really great experience.”
OSU U14s want to blaze new path forward
The U14 players moving on to the national centre also played a key part in the OSU U15 girls’ OPDL championship season (though the U15 Force fell agonizingly short of a Charity Shield title, dropping a penalty-kick shootout to Markham 7-6 Sunday in Vaughan).
With many of the U15 team’s stars missing games to play for Team Ontario, Team Canada or with the national development centre this year, call-ups were frequent for the younger players, though Fox credits them for always keeping commitment to their U14 mates.
“Kids always want to play up and have those opportunities, but they all said straight out: ‘This is our team and we want to win with our team,’” recalls the coach who arrived in Canada from England just before COVID hit. “They’ve all been friends and a lot of them have been together for years.”
The friendship and family feel is evident in the relationship between the Force’s U14 and U15 teams. The younger girls were beyond thrilled to see U15 star Annabelle Chukwu score Canada’s first goal of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
“She doesn’t often express her emotions, but seeing that smile on her face – wow,” shares Angus, whose teammates chime in that they “don’t even have words” to describe Chukwu’s abilities and their admiration for her.
The competitiveness that fuels the Force family to new heights remains ever-present in the relationship between the U14 and U15 teams as well. The younger group acknowledges that, yes, the older players blazed a path and showed them it’s possible to live your dreams, but they emphasize that following in their footsteps is just the first step.
“Our motivation is to make our own name,” Ugarte maintains. “We’re under them, but our goal is to get above them.”
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