As the girls of FC Northwest's under-14 soccer squad blazed through their season, they laughed as much as they won, bonded by big goals and big games and a knack for keeping the hard work fun. "We're close to each other," said 14-year-old co-captain Melissa Wagner.
Now, those 16 young athletes will carry those bonds into their biggest test yet. Early Tuesday morning, the team left for Lethbridge, Alta., where they will represent Manitoba at the girls' under-14 national club championship. They are one of eight Manitoba teams spreading out across Canada this week to compete in the championships for their age level. The tournaments kick off today.
Two of those teams hail from FC Northwest. Besides the under-14 girls, the under-16 girls will head to Kamloops, B.C., for that age group's competition. They are carrying a reputation -- this is the club Olympian Desiree Scott hailed from and she's turned out to their winter training. So they're eager to compete. There were some nerves on Monday night, Wagner and co-captain Brittney Ducharme agreed, but mostly they're ready to rock.
"We're really excited... ," said Ducharme, 14. "Travelling with the girls, going to play soccer... all of our personalities are the same."
For the under-14 team, the Lethbridge tournament is a fine way to cap off a year that saw them soar through the season, winning almost all of their league games. They played a showcase in Vancouver this year, and raced their way through the league, city and Manitoba Soccer Association championships for their age, the latter the highlight of the year so far.
At the national level, coach Laurie McIvor said he expects the girls to face tougher competition. But this group is a dedicated bunch, he said, which eagerly turned out to training and practices three to four times a week. More than that, they "play for each other," he said.
"At the end of the day, they look in the mirror and say 'You know what, I gave it my best effort,' " McIvor said of his squad. "That's really what you want."
Besides, the tougher competition is part of the appeal. Manitoba doesn't have the population base of a Quebec or Ontario, but MSA competitions co-ordinator Chris Lourenco said that hasn't proven a barrier. If anything, it's something of a motivator for players and coaches.
"They view it as they're representing the province, not just representing their club," he said. "They want to show everyone back home how good we really are."
Last year, Lourenco coached the under-14 boys' squad to a fourth-place finish. It wasn't a medal, but it was still a solid showing, and Lourenco said the steady growth of the sport in Manitoba -- including the arrival of a national development centre and a strong coaching pool -- means this year's club teams all have a chance to compete on the biggest stage.
"We've stepped up a few levels in the last 10 years," he said.
And no matter what happens in the standings, the experience could pave the way for future success. On Monday night, parents of the FC Northwest girls' team described how their daughters look at this year's club championship as their first chance of several: after this, they'll fix their hopes on the under-16 level, and the under-18 after that. And Lourenco has seen first-hand what an impact that first national tournament can make.
"I've spoken to a lot of the kids I coached last year, and they still view it as one of the most memorable times of their lives," he said. "Just the professionalism of the whole competition, it's exciting, especially for younger kids. They almost view it as a World Cup or as a major tournament they might see on TV."