11v11: An Oral History of the Two Greatest High School Soccer Teams That Never Actually Existed

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West Sycamore

Destinee Jones, left winger: That was my senior year, so I was thinking I was all big and bad. You know how it is when you’re that age. You’re 18, a senior, thinking you’re ten feet tall and bulletproof. So I was definitely looking forward to the year. To being top dog. I was like, Oh, man, life’s gonna be so easy. I’ll be showing up late, leaving early. Probably walk into class drinking a pumpkin spice latte. [laughs] I guess that’s what I thought it meant to be an adult. Walking around all day with a pumpkin spice latte.

But, soccer-wise, I wasn’t expecting anything special that year. No one was. You gotta realize, back then, West Sycamore was a football school. My brothers all played football. Zak was the starting running back. He was the star in the family, not me. Nobody cared about soccer, much less girls soccer. We were nobody. I’d been on the team three years, and I think we’d gone 7-7 every year. Maybe eight wins, tops. So, you know, going into that senior year, I figured it would be about the same.

I knew we were gonna have a new coach. Some lady. Nykesha Nolan. But what would that mean? Would everything change? Would nothing change? Somewhere in the middle? We didn’t know.

All I knew was I wanted my pumpkin spice lattes. [laughs]

Susan Douglas, right winger: I didn’t really have expectations. Back then, soccer wasn’t about winning games or winning championships. Those things were cool, I guess, but for me, soccer was an escape. A way to escape my real life.

See, that year – I guess it was my junior year – that was, honest to God, one of the toughest years of my life. Maybe the toughest ever.

I know, right? Probably everyone else you interview, they’re gonna say how amazing the year was, best year ever, that sort of thing, but for me, life kind of sucked back then. That year especially.

So, winning or losing? Good team or bad? I wasn’t thinking about that. I just wanted to play soccer. Escape my crappy life for awhile.

Martha Sullivan, forward: That was my senior year, so there was all the usual senior stuff. You know, kings of the school, graduation coming up, all that.

I remember being pretty stressed about college. I didn’t think I’d be able to go. My family, we weren’t dirt poor or anything, but we definitely weren’t rich. Not rich enough to pay for college.

Plus, my grades were only okay. My GPA was probably, like, 2.9, 3.0. Something like that. Not good enough to get an academic scholarship.

And I wasn’t good enough to get an athletic scholarship, either. I mean, I’d scored two goals the year before. Schools don’t come banging down your door if you’ve got stats like that, you know?

So I was like, Dang, maybe I could join the Army or something. Get them to pay for college. I didn’t want to join the Army, but if I had to, maybe I would.

So that’s what I was thinking about that year. Expectations for the team? Eight wins. Nine, maybe. Did I expect things to improve the way they did? No way. Not in my wildest dreams.

Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: That was my second year on the team. My second year in America. We’d come from Cote d’Ivoire.

My first year had been very hard. I had a tiny bit of English, but not a lot. Mostly French. And it’s tough to feel comfortable when you’re like that. You can be friendly to people and you can make friends with them, but there’s only so deep you can go. You want to talk to them about everything, just like good friends do, but you can’t. You don’t know the words.

My best friend on the team was the goalkeeper Michelle Washington, because she spoke a little French. Only a little, though. I’d talk to her with my very simple English and she’d talk to me with her very simple French, and I know we both wanted to go deeper, but we couldn’t. That’s frustrating. It makes you feel like you’ll never fit in.

But my second year, that was better. I started to feel like I belonged. My English was getting better. Michelle and I, we could talk a little more. Other girls, too. I was making friends, doing American things, meeting boys.

All of that would probably have been enough for me that year. If the soccer team had been only so-so, same as always, that would have been fine. I had plenty of other things going on, I just wanted the soccer to be fun.

But then we got a new coach. And Maria Solana came to town. Everything changed.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: What did I expect? Are you kidding? I expected everything. [laughs] Win every game, state champions, conquer the world. Remember, I was 22 years old that year. Just outta college. Ink’s not even dry on my diploma. So of course I was cocky. Thought I was God’s gift to teaching. God’s gift to coaching. [laughs]

I coached three sports that year. That’s in addition to teaching P.E and Health. Crazy, right? The school told me to slow down, said it was too much on my plate, but I wasn’t listening. I was like, I just got done with a double major in college. I was a four-year starter in basketball and softball. You think I can’t handle a busy schedule? [laughs] It’s funny, looking back on it. I didn’t have a clue.

So, the soccer team... The truth is, my expectations weren’t super high. Seven or eight wins? That was your typical girls soccer team back then. 7-7, 8-6, that sort of thing. I guess I thought we’d be a little better – maybe get to nine wins – just because I was so full of myself. But did I think we’d have the season we did? No way. That was Maria Solana, plain and simple.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: Yes, I remember that year very well. Very well. I hope I can tell the story. My English, it’s not as good these days. I don’t get to speak it as much, you know. So maybe it is a little slow. What is the word? Rusty? Yes. My English is rusty.

So, that year... that was my first year in the United States. My family, we were from a tiny little town in Colombia. Very small. And that summer, we had moved to America. Very exciting, yes, but also very scary. I had no English then. None of my family did. And that makes things very hard. Moving to a new country is always hard, but if you don’t speak the language? So much worse. But my father, he said, “We are here to be Americans.” So, very fast, we were taking lessons. A woman in our neighborhood, an old woman, she taught English at the church. Free lessons. So we were there, right from the beginning, me and my sisters, my mother and father. We really wanted to become Americans.

It is funny, isn’t it? I worked so hard to become an American, and now I don’t even live there anymore. But it was worth it. I learned a second language. I made friends.

The team, they were very good friends to me. Like a second family, you know, and that is a really good thing to have when you come to a new place. People who like you, who want to help you.

When I first came, I knew I wanted to play football, but did not know if the school would have a team. Because I had heard that football was not so big in the United States. Soccer, I mean. I had heard that soccer was not so big in the United States. And so when I got to school, I asked some of the girls if there was a team. The Latina girls. They said there was, but that it was not very good. I didn’t mind. I just wanted to play, even if we were not good. I wanted to be part of something. When you are new to a place, you need that. Something to belong to.

For anyone who comes to America, I think that first year is very hard. The language, the culture, the little differences. You feel like an outsider. And there are always some people who try to make you feel even worse. Like you’re a bad person for coming to their country.

But with the soccer team, I felt like I belonged. A lot of immigrants, they do not have that, but I did. I had that team and that coach and all those girls. I will never forget them.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: It’s funny, looking back. Coaching the soccer team was kind of a last-minute thing. I’d just been hired, first-year teacher, and I wanted to coach. Basketball and softball, those would be easy. I played those sports, right? Easy. But those didn’t start until winter and spring. What would I coach in the fall?

Oh, the soccer team needs a coach? Okay, yeah, I can do that. I don’t know soccer, but whatever, I can learn. I can read books, I can watch video, I can talk to people.

That’s kind of how it started. Just this last-minute thing. I certainly didn’t think it would turn into this huge, gigantic success. I didn’t think writers would be coming to me ten years later to talk about it.

And yet, here you are.

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