Rewind 12 months.
This time last year, Eclipse Select’s U16 squad was the top team in the country. The team had a 10-1-1 record in the regular season and entered the Elite Clubs National League playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed.
But something went wrong. Whether it was the Colorado air, a lack of mental preparation or an injury to a star forward, Eclipse came out flat. The team lost the first game of the playoffs 1-0 to Real So Cal.
“It was devastating,” said forward Michelle Prokof. “We never want to feel like that again.”
Her teammates agree. “It was really a very disappointing moment,” said defender Erin Holland. “We were expecting to do something big, but we didn’t finish our chances, and it was a very disappointing way to end the season.”
So now, 12 months later, the girls from Illinois find themselves in a familiar position. And this time, they say, they won’t let that happen again.
“That was a big, big learning experience for us,” said Prokof. “We have put in a lot of work this year and we won’t let that go to waste.”
Head coach Mike Nesci said that last year’s loss is still fresh on the minds of his players. And he’s glad it is.
“Most teams that have great successes, there is always a great defeat that they point to which was the inspiration and the drive for them to be successful when they get into that situation again,” said Nesci. “I think that moment last year, and that disappointment that they had, that is the determination and the drive for this group of players.”
This group of players holds a 21-3-0 overall record in ECNL play this year and once again has the No. 1 overall seed entering this month’s playoffs. They sit at No. 2 in the ESPNHS ECNL Under-17 Power Rankings, and they are a perennial favorite to take home the ECNL crown at its toughest age group.
The Eclipse Select U17 roster currently includes 13 Division I commitments and a cast of state and regional US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program players. Across the board, this club is in contention for multiple ECNL titles: the U15 teams sits in second place, while the U16 team is in fifth place. Eclipse Select is the only club to have a top five team in three different age groups.
But the U17 team has the experience of having been there, and feeling the pain of getting knocked out. This year, they know not to overlook their first round game. Especially since this year their first round game will come against rival Michigan Hawks.
“Over the years, Michigan Hawks and Eclipse have been very competitive, through US Youth Soccer and now in the ECNL,” says Nesci. “They’ve always been a club that we measure ourselves against.”
Michigan Hawks has earned the No. 16 seed in this month’s playoffs, pitting them against the top-seeded Eclipse in the first round on June 27. Hawks head coach Doug Landefeld says that the rivalry only adds to the postseason importance of this game.
“We always have a bit of a different feel at practice when we have Eclipse coming up,” says Landefeld. “There’s a pretty good familiarity with each other and that’s because of the great amount of respect on both sides.”
Hawks are one of three teams to beat Eclipse this year, a 3-0 victory in Michigan last in November. The teams split two matches, as Eclipse won its home game in October 2-0.
“It’s always a good game when we play them,” says Holland. “I think it’s good that we play them first round. We know we really need to focus on day one and get the job done, then go on from there.”
Talent-wise, Eclipse has the tools to go on much further. They have a well-balanced offense with a variety of threats, and a brick-wall defense that has recorded 16 shutouts this season. Nesci says the deciding factor for this team will be finding a difference-maker, that one player who can step up in the right moment.
“Every team needs those players that are going to be able to make a difference in those big games,” says Nesci. “When we get into the final phases of the season, we’re going to have to have players that are going to be special in those moments.”
It’s a blessing and a curse that this team is so well rounded. Nesci says it’s a team of consistent performers who understand their role in the bigger picture. He’s also hoping that one or two players can rise above, and carry this team to a place it’s never been.
Could it be Holland, the team captain who anchors down that stingy defense? Maybe Lauren Sajewich, the center midfielder known for her attacking? Kara Morway and Taylor Schissler started the scoring early last week at PDA, could they come out big again? Goalkeeper Cristina Mursuli has been known to make some big saves. And Prokof is back from an eight-month ACL injury that kept her out of last year’s ECNL playoffs, maybe she is the spark they need.
“Honestly, it could be anyone,” Prokof says. “That’s what makes us so dangerous.”