By Jon Gerardi
The Daily Item
As the girls on North Union United 99F Strikers huddled around after a tough 1-0 win against Massachusetts, Strikers coach and North Union United Soccer Club president Frank Omlor was a bit speechless at what they accomplished, to say the least.
The win itself allowed the Strikers to capture the Region 1 championship at the President's Cup level of youth soccer, but more importantly, it made league history.
North Union United has had just two state cup champions since 1998 (when the league first formed), both Challenge Cup boys champions.
Not only did the Strikers become the first girls team to win a state cup championship at any level, but they were the first to win a President's Cup in the area and the first team -- boys or girls -- to claim a Region 1 championship.
In youth soccer, there are three levels of state cup in Pennsylvania: the Challenge Cup (lowest), the President's Cup and the National Championship Series.
"All the hard work they've put in for years and for years with soccer and this team: it's the pinnacle of youth soccer," Omlor said. "Only thing that can be better is winning a national championship and we don't know what we're up against, but we're going in with (the) mindset that we want to put on the best performance and win the whole thing. It's incredible (to get here)."
In the President's Cup, four regions represent various states and each compete in July to determine a national champion. Region 1 -- which the Strikers won -- comprises the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and New England regions and is made up of 14 different states.
The President's Cup tournament starts on July 11 and runs until July 14 in Auburndale, Fla., with the four region champions playing each other the first three days, and a championship and consolation game set up on the 14.
"At the end of the (Region 1 title) match, we were pretty much speechless, but we did tell them there's only 17 girls in Pennsylvania and 17 girls in 14 states of Region 1 that can say they're President Cup champions at (the) Youth 13 level and why not be the first 17 girls to say they're national champs?" Omlor said. "They've already made history, let's continue to make a little more history in the middle of July. (We) kind of left them with that."
The Strikers lost last year in the playoffs in a quarterfinal game in penalty kicks after double overtime. While that loss stung for a little while, the Strikers used it as motivation and responded with solid play since. The Strikers won the state cup semifinal and championship games both 2-1 before blanking New York in the Region 1 semifinals, 1-0, and topping Massachusetts -- a team they lost to in pool play -- 1-0.
All in all, it simply speaks to the talented soccer in the Valley area.
"The quality has grown tremendously in this area. You see this in high school. Most high school kids coming out of local schools (and) kids that receive scholarships or move on, I guarantee you they have a club soccer background," Omlor said.
That club soccer background is evident by simply glancing at a list of The Daily Item Soccer All-Stars from last year:
Selinsgrove's David Aurand, Chuck Peeler, Dustin Moyer and Ian Gemberling; Midd-West's Austin Good and Colton Keister; Warrior Run's Austin Bower and Elias George; Danville's Robert Gentellucci, Chris Dempsey and Logan Martz; East Juniata's Spencer Reinford; Lewisburg's Bronson Ferster, Kerry Shutt, Bryan Speake and Logan Cho.
Those local athletes all played club soccer for a U-18 Santos team coached by former Lewisburg High School coach Shawn Callender, a team that travels to play various teams across the state, much like the Strikers do.
That success throughout club and high school has only boosted local soccer interest and participation throughout various club levels, including with North Union United.
Omlor has seen an increase in participation in his three years as coach. "Oh my goodness, yes. On the girls side and within our club," Omlor said. "Over that three-year period we've doubled the amount of teams. A huge interest in parents and kids wanting to test themselves versus the best competition and wanting to give their kids a premier soccer experience by testing themselves against Harrisburg and Philadelphia area teams without a doubt."
North Union United itself has 22 different teams, depending on the season, and draws from seven different counties, with some kids traveling more than an hour to attend practices.
The teams travel to various tournaments in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas and even Virginia and New Jersey. While some youth soccer clubs in the larger areas, such as Philadelphia, have paid coaches, all the coaches for the Strikers and their league are volunteers.
All that traveling has just one more stop on the journey for the Strikers: Florida. And if the Strikers keep making history this season, the only thing left to capture will be that national championship.