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

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West Sycamore

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: After two weeks, it was time for our first game. I was really nervous. Really uncertain. I liked what I’d seen in practice, I thought the girls played well together, but you know, how did we compare to other teams? I had no idea.

Our first game was against... who was it against? I can’t even remember.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: First game was against Yellow Springs. A road game. Maybe 30 minutes down the road in Jefferson. We played them every year and they’d always been kind of like us. A fairly middling team.

I was so excited going into that game. I knew we’d crush ’em. I think I was the only one willing to say it out loud. Everyone else was like, Oh, you know, we won’t really know until we play a real game, and I was like, Whatever. I’d been on that team three years. I knew what a normal West Sycamore team looked like. This team was head and shoulders above that. Yeah, sure, it was just practice, but who cares? The difference in quality was obvious. A blind man could see how much better we were.

The bus ride there was pretty chill. It usually is on the way to games. The bus ride home, that’s either happy or sad, depending on the result, but the bus ride to games, that’s usually somewhere in between. Everybody’s getting their game face on.

I was wearing the captain’s armband that day. That was awesome. I knew I had a pretty good chance to win it, but still, actually having Coach give it to me was pretty fabulous. I remember it so well. Feeling it on my bicep. Trying to figure out where to put it. Left arm? Right arm? On my sleeve or on my skin? If I put it on my skin, will my sleeve come down and cover it up? If I put it on my sleeve, will it be too tight? Will that annoy me? Will the sleeve rub my arm too much? You know, all the dumb little things you don’t think about until you’re actually having to deal with them.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: I was so nervous. My first soccer game. My first time being a coach in any sport. First time shaking the opposing coach’s hand. First time shaking the referee’s hand. Handing him the lineup card. So many firsts.

I’d actually called Katie Gillman the night before. You know, my college coach? I didn’t want to mess up my first game like I did that first day of practice. She was awesome, though. We made another list. Do this, do this, don’t forget this. Dang, she helped me so much.

You know, you think you’re ready, you think you’re gonna be the greatest coach ever, but then when the moment comes, you’re scared. It’s a good kind of scared, I guess, but still. I didn’t want to mess anything up.

So anyway, all the pregame stuff’s taken care of, the girls are out there on the field, and the ref blows his whistle. Actually, I think it was a she that day. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. So the ref blows her whistle and play starts and I’m on the sideline trying not to hyperventilate. I’m like, Okay, Nykesha. Now you get to see if your team’s any good.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: We killed them. 3-1. And that score makes it seem closer than it really was. We put a couple shots off the post, another couple off the crossbar. I think Maria put one or two right into the goalkeeper’s belly. Honestly, that game could have been 7-1. 8-1. It was a complete blowout.

During the game, I didn’t quite know how to handle it. I was just giddy with how we were playing, practically skipping down the field, laughing, cheering, just this huge smile on my face. And I was like, Wait, hold on. Maybe this isn’t how you handle a blowout win. [laughs] I didn’t know. I’d never had to deal with it before. And here I was, the captain. I knew I was supposed to set the example. So that was weird. Trying to figure out how to behave when you’re killing a team. How to be a good winner. I don’t know if I did such a good job of it that day. I was too happy. Too shocked.

But I got better at it. There were a lot more victories to come.

Martha Sullivan, forward:I scored two goals in the first game! That was my total for the entire previous season! Next game, I had another goal. Third game, another. It was crazy.

Remember, I’d wanted to score a little more that year, hoping for a scholarship. Then when I bagged two in that first game, I was like, Holy crap, this could actually happen. I could actually get recruited. So, thank you, God, for sending me Maria Solana.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: Martha Sullivan was our striker. She was a nice girl. Small. Fast. A hard worker. She played like a slippery little fish. She was not big, so she had to find empty places. Make the defenders forget where she was. And she was very good at that. I think we worked well together, me and Martha.

Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: The whole offense worked well together. They clicked right from the start. Maria, Martha, Destinee, Susan Douglas, Daniela DeLeon. They were amazing. Maria Solana was the key, of course. She made everyone better.

I didn’t really move forward too much. Mostly I stayed back on defense, watching for counter attacks. Tried to stop them before they could really get started. I enjoyed it. Coach Nolan, she told me to be more aggressive. That was a big thing that year. Be aggressive. Act. Don’t wait for the other team to act. Make them react to you.

She had this thing she would say to us before every game. She would say, “First tackle, first foul, first shot, first goal.” She wanted us to be the first for everything. Don’t wait for the other team. Do it first. “First tackle, first foul, first shot, first goal.”

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: I stole that from Bruce Arena, the old U.S. national coach. I borrowed stuff from all over. He’s a pretty good coach to steal ideas from.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: I did not know if we were a good team. Not right away. Part of that was being new to America. Maybe it is like that for all immigrants. You know how things were in your old country, but in your new country? You are not sure. Are we a good team? We are winning, but I am still not sure.

Everything in life was a little strange back then. My town in Colombia was very small. Just a village, really. So I come to America and the town is bigger, the school is bigger, the people are bigger. [laughs] I liked the changes, they were exciting, but sometimes it was overwhelming.

I’ve lived in three countries now, and I can tell you, when you move to a new country, there are all these little differences, little tiny things that throw you off. The grocery store is different. Going to a restaurant is different. The milk you get, it is just a little different. Going to the movies. Things like that.

And I guess soccer was the same. I knew the teams in my tiny little part of Colombia, but in America? What’s a good team look like in America?

Then we started winning and winning and winning. After maybe three or four games where we won by a big score, I started to figure it out. Oh, this is what teams are like here. And we are really good.

It was a nice feeling. A nice discovery. It is like when a girl realizes, Oh, I am actually pretty? Or, I suppose, when a boy is like, Oh, I am handsome? Girls like me? That is what it was like. Oh, my team is very good? How exciting!

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: Yeah, we were good. Hella good. We weren’t just winning, we were winning big. 3-1, 4-1, 5-2. It was so much fun.

My family actually started coming to games. Well, my mom. The rest of them, they didn’t care about soccer. I told you, we were a football family. Dad played in college. My brothers all played. They were stars, really. My older brother Michael was playing at Fresno State. Zak, he was a year below me, he was the starting running back. James, he was a wide receiver. They both went on to play in college. So we weren’t just sort of a football family. It was a big, big deal.

What did they think of me playing soccer? They didn’t. At all. [laughs] I think my mom had been to a game the year before. Maybe James had come at some point. Maybe. But my dad? God, no. He couldn’t have cared less. I might as well have been doing... I don’t know... ballet. That’s how much my family cared about soccer.

But then, that year, we were suddenly good – suddenly great – and people were talking. Around school, there was just the tiniest of buzzes about the team. My brothers were like, “What’s up with you guys? Did you really win a game 7-2?” And I’m like, “Yeah, we’re good now, you should come watch us play.”

They didn’t come right away. Mom came to a game. The boys were in the middle of football season. Dad didn’t care. But, you know, Mom came to that one game and was impressed. She told everyone about it, said we were the real deal. I figured that was a good start. Maybe if we kept winning, the guys would come, too.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: I remember some of the girls were talking about how we could win State. I did not know what they were talking about. My little school in Colombia, yes, we had a team, a small team, but it wasn’t quite the same. There was no state championship, not like they have in America. The whole thing is organized differently. So I did not really know what the girls were talking about, not at first. But everyone was saying we had a chance to win State and I could tell that was a good thing, so I got excited for it, even though I didn’t really know what it meant.

My best friend on the team was Yoreli Ospina, the right back. My English was very poor that first year, and Yoreli was a big help. She translated for me. She helped me with my English lessons. She said that she liked doing it, which is good. Yoreli was a good friend. I needed friends that year.

I told you earlier about that boy in the gymnasium. The one who said the things to me, who told me to go home. There were others. Not a lot. I don’t want you to think everyone was mean to me. They weren’t. But some were. Some people at school, some people outside of school. My parents, my sisters, we all have stories we could tell you. People who treated us badly.

And then there were the people who were wonderful to me. All the people who wanted to help me. Yoreli. Coach Nolan. The people in my neighborhood.

The old lady at the church giving English lessons? She didn’t get paid, she did it for free. I remember asking her, “Were you an immigrant? Is that why you help us?”

She said she wasn’t. “My grandparents were, years and years ago.” That is what she said. I think she said they were from Germany or Russia or somewhere. “It was hard for them,” she said. “People didn’t always welcome them. Didn’t always want to help them. If I can make it a little easier for you, then I will.” That is what she said. I remember it. She was a good person. There were many good people. A few bad ones, but many more who were good.

I think you have spoken to Clementine Thiamale? She was an immigrant. Not that year with me, but the year before. She came from Africa and spoke French.

Clementine was such a nice girl. She had this big, big smile. Everyone loved her. And she was an important player for us, also. She played defensive midfield. Our defense was not as strong as our offense, but Clementine was a very good player. She was very good at stopping attacks before they made it to our back line. A very good player. Very high energy, very strong. What is the word in English, when you never stop trying? Tenacious? Yes. That was Clementine. She was tenacious. I liked Clementine as a player and I also liked that she was an immigrant like me.

Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: I told you how hard it was the year before, my first year in America, but my second year, things got better. My English got better and I realized I was starting to get closer to people. It’s a slow process, making friends. It’s slow for anyone, I guess, but especially when you’re doing it in a different language. But that second year, things got better. I started feeling like my friends were real friends. Like my teammates were real teammates. Like I belonged there. I stopped feeling like a new kid. Like an immigrant. I started to feel a little like an American.

Oh, and that was also the year I got my first boyfriend. That was nice. [laughs] I can’t believe I’m blushing, it was so long ago. Still, at the time it was very scary and very exciting and wonderful. I guess it’s like that for everybody.

His name was Curtis. Curtis Wallace. He was a junior, same as me. Very cute. Very nice. He was short, like me. I loved his eyes. There were so many things I liked about him. Maybe that’s how it is for everyone and their first boyfriend. You forget the bad things, you just look back on the excitement and the confusion and the fun of it all.

You can see how it was an exciting year for me. Starting to make close friends, starting to feel like I belonged, plus I get my first boyfriend. And the team is suddenly so good? It was an exciting year. Really, it’s one of my favorite years ever.

Susan Douglas, right winger: The team looked great, right from the start. The offense especially. We won our first... heck, how many games did we win to start the year? 10? 11? 12? It was so different, being on a really good team. So new.

I could only halfway enjoy it. The other girls were having a blast, all smiles and laughter and whatnot, but my life was only getting worse.

I told you my mother died in June. Well, in September, my grandma joined her. Not a meth overdose, of course. Just being old. Died in her sleep.

It still hurts, ten years later. That whole year... honestly, I don’t know how I survived it. Only seventeen years old and I had to go through all that. My husband tells me how strong I must have been, and I guess that’s true, but I didn’t always feel it, not at the time. I just felt like this kid who the universe was beating the crap out of day after day after day.

I went through a series of foster homes. It’s hard to remember them all, but there were a bunch. I’d spend two weeks in one place – it might be okay, it might be awful – then they’d move me to another place. Again, it might be awful, it might be fine – and then another place. Coach Nolan knew about all of it, but otherwise, I didn’t tell a soul. I didn’t tell Coach, either. It was the office telling her. She’d check on me, ask me if I was okay, if I needed anything, but I told her right from the start that I didn’t want anyone else knowing. And she was cool about that. She kept my secret.

I look back on that, wondering what would have happened if I’d let people know. If I’d let down my guard. How would they have reacted? Would it have been better for me? Worse? Would I have been a little less lonely? It’s tough carrying all that inside you, never letting anyone help you carry the burden. I can see that now, but ten years ago? No. I was just a kid trying to survive. Trying to pretend I was normal.

Martha Sullivan, forward: So, the winning continued. Once a team gets a little momentum, you get hard to stop. I really believe that. If we lose our first game? Our second game? We probably would’ve figured, Oh, we’re just the same old West Sycamore. But win our first five, six, seven games? And win them handily? Everyone starts to believe. You start to think you can’t lose.

The goals kept coming. How many goals did I have that year? 12? 13? Just shy of a goal a game, I think. It was insane.

We were definitely an offensive team. Offense was the big story. Our defense? Nothing special. I think we had maybe one shutout the whole year. But that was okay. As much as we scored, if the D could keep it low, just give up one goal, maybe two, we were probably winning. That’s how we looked at it.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: Like I’ve said, I was still figuring out how to coach soccer, so in a way, playing fast, that was easier. Having an air-tight defense, that’s a tougher thing to do. Carlos Orostieta, he had an air-tight D. Absolutely bulletproof. But he’d been doing it for 30, 40 years. He knew what he was doing. Me? I was still learning.

But let me tell you one of the keys of coaching. I’ve figured this out over time. First and foremost, figure out what kind of players you’ve got, then plan your tactics around that. Got a bunch of big tough girls? Play big tough girl soccer. Got a bunch of girls who can run? Turn ’em loose. Run like hell. Got a creator like Maria Solana?

[laughs]

But, of course, how many coaches have got a creator like Maria Solana? Like I said, I was probably the luckiest first-year coach ever.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: Yeah, we were just pedal to the metal, all the time. Though, you know, we did have a defensive strategy, it just wasn’t a sit-back-and-shut-things-down sort of strategy. Just the opposite. Coach wanted us to press. High pressure from the start of the game to the finish. Get turnovers high up the field, turn ’em into goals.

Little Martha Sullivan was great at that. That girl had a motor. Never stopped running.

Martha Sullivan, forward: I liked it. It’s fun harassing defenders when they have the ball. Because, you know, they’re already big and clumsy. And now they’ve got me racing up, trying to take the ball? They can’t handle it. Harass the goalkeeper, harass the center backs, get them to make a bad pass. I loved it. Destinee and I both did well at it. We both liked to run. And when you get turnovers way up the field like that, you’re already in a good position to score. Which we did.

I can’t remember when I got my first recruitment letter. Six games into the season? It was from Purdue University. I’ll never forget it. Purdue. My second letter was from Georgia Tech. The third was Colorado State. There were others, too, trickling in. They were all just preliminary letters, just showing interest, but oh my, was I excited. I remember putting them up on my wall.

I called the schools, talked to the coaches. They were a little unsure about me, since I’d only just started scoring goals in my senior year, but still, they were intrigued. They told me to keep up the good work, keep doing well, and at the end of the season, maybe we could talk about scholarship opportunities.

Well, you can imagine, I was over the moon. Just beside myself. I had a million thoughts running through my head. Could I keep it up? Would the goals keep coming? Would the team keep winning? What if I got hurt? If I got hurt, I was screwed. And why couldn’t Maria Solana have come a year earlier, when I was a junior? [laughs]

It was such an exciting time. Very tense, too, I guess, since there was so much uncertainty, but still... exciting. No scholarship offers yet, but at least they’d noticed me. At least they were interested.

Susan Douglas, right winger: I don’t know when it was. We were maybe 9-0. 10-0. It was around then that my living situation got better.

I’d been going foster home to foster home for a while. Maybe two, two and a half months. Keeping it all secret, of course. Not telling a soul.

[pauses]

That’s no way to go through life, you know? I was just a shell of a girl back then. Hardly said a word to anyone, scared they’d see how messed up I was. That’s no way to live.

[pauses]

Well, anyway, the team was cooking along, 9-0, 10-0, something like that, and that was when I moved in with the Galtons. They were this nice old couple. Had never taken in a foster kid before. I was their first one. Mr. Galton was a retired college professor, Mrs. Galton a retired nurse. Nice house, nice people, everything about it was just nice. And since I was the first kid they’d ever taken in, they were kind of open to how it should be done. They didn’t have any preconceptions, you know? So I came in and they treated me really well. Not like just another broken-down foster kid, but like a regular person. A normal kid.

That really makes a difference, you know? Some foster families, they get so many kids, one after the other after the other, that they hardly seem like kids to them any more. But with the Galtons, I was it. I was their first kid. Their only kid. So it was like their granddaughter had come to visit or something. Sitting around the table for dinner, going out for ice cream, taking me to see movies. Stuff like that.

I felt special. And it had been a long time since I’d felt special.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: I’m super-competitive, so of course I wanted to know where we ranked. But with high school sports, state rankings are hard to come by. It’s not like college football where, you know, the Associated Press has a top 25 and ESPN’s got a top 25. This is high school. And even worse, it’s high school soccer. And even worse, it’s high school girls soccer. So try finding anybody who’s paying attention. Much less paying attention enough to rank all the teams in the state. You’ll have a hard time finding that guy.

But it turns out, there was a guy doing just that. Some guy on the internet who, for whatever reason, was a soccer freak and decided that high school soccer was gonna be his thing. So he had this website and each week he’d put out a top 10 for both boys and girls in our state.

Start of the year, of course, we were nowhere to be found. And why would we be? We were nobodies.

East Sycamore, they were number one. Right from the start. That program was so good, year in and year out, of course they were number one. Even in an off year, I bet they were in the top 10, just because Carlos Orostieta was their coach. But that year... that year was definitely not an off year. They were loaded. Number one, right from the start.

But did we eventually make the top 10? You bet we did. After four or five games, I think. We were undefeated, just killing teams, and then, one week there we were, in the top ten.

Win a few more, and we’ve climbed into the top 5. Win a few more, and we’ve made it to the top 3. I’m going crazy, the girls are going crazy, it was just so much fun.

I’m not sure when it was... I think we were 10-0. Maybe 11-0. And who was coming across town? To play us on our field? The top ranked, undefeated, completely loaded, completely unbeatable East Sycamore High School.

Oh, man alive, were we excited. We couldn’t wait.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: Seriously, we were so pumped for that game. Finally, we had a chance to beat those dudes. Finally, we were on their level!

AT least, we thought we were on their level. Were we? Who knows? But we couldn’t wait to find out.

The whole school was excited. Okay, maybe not the whole school, but still, more people than usual. My family was even excited, believe it or not. Dad was like, “Number 3 in the state? Really... I may need to come see what this is all about.” That’s how he talks. The football team had a bye that week, so my brothers were gonna come, too.

So I was like, damn, not only are we up against the best team in the state, but my family’s finally gonna come see me play? We’ve gotta win this. If Dad comes to see me and we lose? He’d never come back. Never. We’ve got to win this game.

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