Starting fast may not be its greatest strength, but the Alleycats U15 girls’ soccer team certainly knows how to finish with a flourish.
The group of high school standouts did that twice last month in consecutive days to qualify for a national tournament where no Capital Region team has gone before.
“We’re not a quick first-half team,” Alleycats coach Tara O’Keefe said. “We make adjustments. We regroup and come together. I try to have them feed off me. I’m very vocal and I’ll get into them a little. I’ll get fired up and I want them to play like that.”
The Alleycats have been responding to the former Columbia High School All-American since gathering for their first practice back in November. Their long trek ends at the National Premier League Finals set for July 13-17 at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.
NPL soccer is the highest competitive level in US Club Soccer’s Elite Development Program.
“These girls have been so committed,” O’Keefe said. “They’ve trained. They’ve worked. They are driven and focused. They’re ready to take on whoever.”
Olivia Piraino joined the team shortly after helping Niskayuna reach last fall’s state semifinals.
“I think we have a chance,” said Piraino, a midfielder and forward who recently finished up her freshman year. “We want to come out strong every game. We don’t want to fall behind. We’ve been able to come back, but we don’t want to have to do it.”
The Alleycats have pool games scheduled against fellow NPL champions from Illinois, Idaho and New Jersey. The Alleycats reached the national tournament by beating two New Jersey-based teams June 3-4 in the winner-take-all playoff.
“The kids in the first half came out slow, nervous,” O’Keefe said. “In both games they did that, then they played great.”
The Alleycats went 15-1-2 in the NPL and won the North Division before beating league affiliates The Sports Factory 5-2 and FC Copa Academy 3-1 to qualify for the national tournament in Indiana.
“We had to apply to get in [the NPL], and we got accepted,” said O’Keefe, a former varsity soccer coach at Shaker High School. “It’s the most prestigious league around. We had an opportunity to be at this level and we capitalized. We’re the first team from this area.”
Piraino said O’Keefe gave the team a history lesson before its semifinal game against The Sports Factory.
“Coach said we can be the first Alleycats team to go to the national tournament,” Piraino, who scored a goal in both games, said. “That got us going, and we played well.”
The Alleycats also won the June EDP Spring College Showcase in New Jersey, placed second at the May Needham College Showcase and reached the semifinals at the November EDP Fall College Showcase in New Jersey.
“They’ve grown so much,” O’Keefe said. “They know each other. They know when to play the ball and where the runs should be. We have a system and they play as a coheesive unit. In the beginning some of them didn’t even know each others names.”
All parts of Section II are represented, with athletes from such schools Mohonasen, Schalmont, Schoharie, Saratoga Springs, Queensbury, Shenendehowa, Shaker, Bethlehem, Colonie, Holy Names, Catholic Central and Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk as well as Niskayuna.
“We’ve jelled well,” Piraino said. “It’s been awesome. I really like the girls.”
Along with Piraino, the team consists of Sofia Cassano, Isabella Dennison, Emily Drake, Katherine Hotaling, Carina Joslin, Megan Krohn, Ianah Mackey, Olivia Maltbie, Hailey Mitchell, Margot Nezaj, Isabella O’Clair, Ava Panto,, Leah Radovic, Olivia Raucci, Abby Ray and Mena Rigdon.
“We move the ball well and find the goal,” O’Keefe said. “We’ve got a lot of speed up top. We play three across and we’re aggressive, and our midfielders control things.”
O’Keefe said the Alleycats have spread the scoring wealth .
“I don’t have one kid,” said O’Keefe, who works for the New York State Office of Mental Health. “We score by committee. If a team is going to scout us they’ll have a hard time.”
Chicago Inferno Elite (June 13), PDA South of New Jersey (June 14) and Idaho Rush Premier (July 15) are scheduled to play the Alleycats in pool games before the July 16 semifinals. The U15 NPL championship match is on July 17. Teams from Florida, Texas, Southern California and Arizona are also in the mix.
“Anything is realistic,” O’Keefe said. “It is about desire. It is about drive. These kids are ready to compete and bring a national title to the area. We’re excited.”
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