By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
They had him at “Good morning.”
Luke Oberkirch, the coach of the under-17 Santa Rosa United Freeze, looked into the faces of his of his players in the near-dawn hours and saw body language that indicated a crew alert and focused, not tired and distracted.
“It’s six o’clock, everyone is there, wide-eyed, ready to go,” he said. “I looked at them and I knew they were ready.”
The Freeze, stacked with some of the finest prep soccer players in the area, including the large and small schools players of the year, Maddy Gonzalez of Maria Carrillo High and Chloe Colbert of Sonoma Academy, respectively, as well as the Gatorade State Girls Soccer Player of the Year, Montgomery’s Taylor Ziemer, are headed Sunday to Richmond, Va. for the Elite Clubs National League finals.
After two years of being denied in the final game of the semifinal tournament in Seattle, the Freeze buried their demons and buried two in the back of the net, notching a 2-0 win against FC Bucks of Pennsylvania and punching their ticket to Virginia.
“This year, they weren’t going to be denied,” Oberkirch said. “Over the course of three games, they performed better than they have the last two years.”
“This year they played as close to their highest level possible,” he said.
These were players, Oberkirch believes, who had it in them all along but who were not minding the little things — the little things that become big things when a group is after a national title.
He didn’t want them showing up for training without shinguards. He didn’t want them forgetting to eat right and hydrate properly. He wanted them sleeping enough.
“I looked at things a little different,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t do as good a job in preparing them the last two years.
“I didn’t assume anything this year,” he said. “I was on them all the time: Make sure you are sharp.”
So when he saw them all that morning in Seattle, on time and alert for a 6 a.m. breakfast call for their 8 a.m. game, he knew they were ready.
“I really put pressure on them and they responded,” he said.
It didn’t hurt this group that they came in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, according to Gonzalez.
There were 32 teams in Seattle, eight of which earned a No 1 seed in their bracket. The Freeze earned theirs by the points per game average, not by winning their conference like the other seven. They were a bit of a wild card.
“We weren’t supposed to make it out of Seattle,” Gonzalez said.
But make it they did, despite tallying a tie in their first game of four — the same routine that had sunk them in previous years. In the semifinal game three years running, the Freeze have needed a win to advance.
“It’s eluded us two years in a row,” said Ziemer. “The last two years, we’ve needed a win and gotten a tie.”
Not this year. Maybe it was that breakfast. Or maybe it was Bria VarnBuhler’s goal just before the half, followed by a takedown in the box in the second half that led to a penalty kick that Ziemer buried to end the game.
“Once we got the lead in the game, it was a clinic in how to kill a game off,” Oberkirch said.
Now the Freeze are focusing on knocking off even bigger foes, squads from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle and Dallas, among others. Longtime soccer watchers say that no local team has made it further in the national hunt, perhaps ever.
Oberkirch will have to do it without superstar defender Brianne Parsons, who has played with the Freeze for years but who left midway through the semifinal round to start her summer soccer program for the University of Oregon.
“I wish I could be there with them,” she said from Eugene. “It’s very bittersweet. I’m happy for them.”
This is this group’s last shot at a trip to Virginia. At U-18, the journey ends in Seattle.
Goalkeeper Claire Howard believes this crew has a shot to win it all.
“It’s the biggest stage in the ECNL,” she said. “We just want to show everyone that we absolutely deserve to be here and our goal is to win, absolutely.”
“We have a realistic chance to win a national championship,” he said.
Defender Sydney Rickert said that, and even the team’s advancement through the semifinal round, took a while to sink in.
“We went to Seattle saying ‘We want to win, we want to win.’ When we did win it was like, ‘Holy crap, we did win, we are going to Virginia,’ ” Rickert said. “That was a fun game to win.”
The Freeze hope the fun is not over. Not quite yet.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.