REDMOND, Washington — Coronations don’t get much sweeter. For the Michigan Hawks U14s, the trophy represented redemption. For the PDA U18s, the cementing of an unmatched legacy.
Both got to hoist the ECNL national championship trophy just the same.
Sunday represented the final day of competition at the six-day ECNL Seattle event, which meant the U14 and U18 championship games took center stage in the morning session. In the initial contest, the Hawks banished memories of a loss to Legends at this stage last year with much of the same roster. Just hours later, the PDA U18 won its second straight title as a group and chiseled its place in stone as arguably the greatest ECNL side in history.
“For us, this has been the last piece of our journey,” PDA coach Mike O'Neill said. “They’re going off to college. We wanted to do things right. They’ve done things right from the very beginning, and we wanted to end it our way, which was with a national championship. We accomplished that.”
The diaspora of this particular PDA is coming with the start of college this fall, but before it splintered apart it put in one final show of force. PDA won all five of its games in Seattle, and the finale against the Michigan Hawks represented the first time PDA had trailed since anyone on the sideline could remember. Despite giving up the first goal, which the Hawks’ Michelle Manning headed goalward within the opening 10 minutes of the second half, PDA clawed back with a pair of steely goals.
Just minutes after conceding, substitute Lauren Dimes poked home the equalizer, and Lauren Jankowski was on the end of a Colby Ciarrocca cross with about 15 minutes left for the decisive 2-1 lead. The Hawks pushed for the equalizer over the final moments, but PDA’s iron back line - which had surrendered just three goals in 16 regular season games - didn’t yield.
The result was the cementing of a dynasty years in the making. PDA hasn’t lost a regular season game in over two years, a national league event game in three years and a league game in four. That now encompasses back-to-back national championships, giving rise to the question of whether this particular side is the best in ECNL history.
The answer? It very well could be.
“In every training session, every year they raise the standard,” O'Neill said. “To beat a team like Michigan Hawks, they’re a very talented team. I think the two best teams in the country played today. But I don’t think they feel (the pressure). I think they love it.”
The Hawks’ 2-1 loss in the later game denied the program of a title sweep thanks to events that transpired earlier that morning. The Michigan Hawks U14 team overcame a similarly hard-fought battle to prevail 3-2 over a plucky Real Colorado side that knocked out PDA in penalties in the semifinals on Saturday. The Hawks trailed early, but a team that had lost out on a title at this stage last year wasn’t to be denied this time around.
“I think we worked really hard for what we got. I think we deserve it,” said midfielder Abby Gardiner. “It’s just a really exciting moment to win a national championship. I don’t think we really know what we’re feeling right now, but we’re just excited.”
Hawks may have controlled most of the game’s meaningful passages, but Real Colorado did effective work on the counter. Lightning quick forward Sophia Smith played up top as a lone striker and troubled a Hawks back line that was caught out several times. The first was just five minutes in when Jade Gosar knocked in a header off a free kick for an early lead.
The Hawks assumed command quickly thereafter and scored two in quick succession. Fifteen minutes later, center back Samantha Kleedtke blasted a 25-yard free kick into the upper left corner to level terms, and the Hawks redirected another Kleedtke free kick in a scrum not long after to take the upper hand.
Real Colorado didn’t go quietly. With about 20 minutes to go in the game, left back Shae Holmes scored the goal of the game with a left-footed screamer that beat the keeper to the top shelf. That knotted the game at 2-2 and set it up for a frantic finish. The Hawks were on the spot, and it was none other than Alexa Spaanstra, who scored a hat trick in the semifinals, with the athletic winner. She cut onto her left and finished across the keeper’s face with a low-burner with about five minutes to go for a 3-2 lead.
A prime time play from one of the nation’s prime time players on the biggest stage.
“Last year I think we were more shocked because we didn’t expect to make it either,” Spaanstra said. “But I think this year, we thought that because we didn’t win last year we were going to get to the finals and play our hardest. I think we did that.”
Real Colorado U16 3-0 So Cal Blues U16
For the rest of the field - that is, the U15, U16 and U17 teams - Sunday represented a crucial stepping stone to next month’s finals in Richmond, Virginia. With postseason group play wrapping up the six-day event in style, there were perhaps few teams expected to go through with as much gusto as the Real Colorado U16s. Blessed with arguably the best ECNL player in the nation in Mallory Pugh and a deep starting lineup that features the likes of Julie Mackin, Alyssa Kaiser and Bailey Cook, there was plenty of expectation on this team’s shoulders.
There can be few complaints with the way Real Colorado showed up this week. Needing just a draw to win its group and advance, Real Colorado stormed past So Cal Blues with a late offensive burst to take all three points. The team scored 10 goals in their three games in Seattle and didn’t let in a single tally. One of the presumptive favorites for next month’s national title is moving on.
“We were good. We didn’t concede a goal all week, which I think is the biggest thing for us,” Real Colorado coach Neil Payne said. “We came into the week with a lot of confidence, and we left with more.”
Real Colorado had to fight for the victory, but two goals from Kaiser and another from Allison Gray pushed Real Colorado on to victory. Pugh notched an assist to bring her weeklong total to two goals and two assists over three games.
Real Colorado was one of just 24 U15, U16 and U17 sides to go through to the national finals un July. The draw will be released by ECNL on July 12 in advance of the event’s July 13 open.