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: So we finished the year 13-1 and ranked second. Hell of a record, a lot better than anyone expected, but still... damn that loss to East. We should’ve been undefeated. Ten years later and it still annoys me. Which is dumb.

But the truth is, the way that one loss happened, with Maria being sick, that’s a loss we could live with. Everyone knew we’d have beaten East full strength. Heck, down our best player and we still played ’em close? That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And we knew it. Full strength, we knew we could beat anyone.

So here comes the tournament, we’re the second seed, we’ll be playing the seventh seed, South Hawthorne, and we’re playing them at home. It was an exciting week of practice. Lots of confidence, lots of smiles. It felt like everything was set up for us to roll through the playoffs.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: I wanted revenge for that East Sycamore loss. First game my dad had ever come to see and we can’t even score a goal. He was all like, “Oh, a 1-0 game. Soccer’s so exciting. Yawn.”And I was trying to tell him that if Maria had been healthy, we might’ve dropped 5 goals on them. But nope, we get shut out. It was humiliating. Mom was like, “No, I’ve seen them score. They’re exciting, really.” My dad, my friggin’ brothers... they were unimpressed.

But the way the tournament was seeded – us the 2nd seed, East the 8th – if we wanted revenge, it was gonna have to be in the final. East would have to beat the top seed, then I guess the fourth or fifth seed, and only then would we get to play them. And this time, it would be them who was down their best player, not us. We’d be full strength, they’d be missing Hayley Swanson, and we’d get to pay them back for that one loss.

And maybe, maybe, I could get my family out there to watch it. I mean, hell, if we could make it to the final, they’d have to come watch, right?

Susan Douglas, right winger: Yeah, I was really looking forward to the playoffs. It was hard not to be excited.

That was a pretty good time for me. Life was decent. For the first time in months, really. I was still with the Galtons. I liked them, they liked me. It looked like a situation that could last, you know? I was thinking, Wow, what if I could just stay here? No more moving to a new home every couple weeks. Just stay in one spot for awhile. Getting excited about something like that won’t make sense to most people, but all the foster kids out there, they’ll understand. When you find a good situation, you’re praying you don’t have to give it up.

So, yeah, going into the playoffs, I was actually feeling good. Best I had in months. Of course, I was still living a lie, still keeping my situation a secret from everyone. That hadn’t changed. But on the inside? Things were good. I was looking forward to the playoffs. Excited to see how we’d do.

Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: It was a good week of practice. We were all very confident. I think Destinee Jones was a big part of that. She was so excited, so full of energy. Destinee was a good captain. I’ve had a lot of captains over the years and she was one of the best. Some captains are too serious, too competitive. Some captains are too quiet and will never speak up for you. Destinee was a good combination of things. Maria Solana was the best player on that team, but Destinee deserves a lot of credit, too.

So, yes, that week was good. We felt like we had a really good chance to win it all.

I remember... [laughs] Okay, this is embarrassing, but I think that was the week Curtis finally asked me out. Was it? I think it was.

He’d been coming around a lot. You know, to flirt and stuff. He would stop by my locker between classes. He would call me at home to ask about homework. My dad, he didn’t like that. [laughs] And that week leading up to the tournament, I think Curtis came to a couple practices. Yes, I’m sure of it now, because I remember this one day we were practicing and it was very cold. One of the first really cold days of the year. We were on the practice field, Coach was talking to us about South Hawthorne, the team we’d be playing, and I remember Curtis was sitting on the bleachers, all hunched up in this big coat, with these huge clouds of breath around him. Some of the girls were teasing me, telling me, “Oh, your boyfriend’s here.” And I was like, “He’s not my boyfriend,” and then Destinee came right up beside me and grabbed my hand and made me wave at him and she yelled, “Hi, Curtis!” [laughs] I was so embarrassed, but Curtis just smiled and waved.

Gosh, that’s a pretty silly story, but... I don’t know, when you’re that age and you’ve never had a boyfriend before, small things like that are very exciting.

Anyway, after practice, I went over to him and told him I couldn’t believe he sat through all that cold and he was just so sweet and so cute and said he wanted to see me play and then we walked back to the school together and he asked me out.

I don’t think you ever forget your first time doing things, you know? Maybe some girls get asked out all the time, but that was a first for me, so I think it will always be special.

So that week wasn’t all about soccer, I guess. There was life, too.

Martha Sullivan, forward: That week was all about soccer. Life, boys, family, I didn’t want to think about any of that. I was totally focused on soccer. Soccer and college. How I could use soccer to get myself to college.

Colorado State was the school that seemed most interested in me, but Georgia Tech was where I wanted to go. I was thinking I might like computer programming and Tech seemed like a good school for that. Plus, I thought it would be cool to live in a big city like Atlanta.

I’d talked to Tech’s coach on the phone and she liked my numbers, liked all my goals. She said something like, “Let’s wait until after the playoffs to make a decision. You keep playing hard, do well, and we’ll be in touch.” So that lit a fire under me. I was like, I’ve got to do well. The team’s got to win, I’ve got to score, and then she’ll offer me a scholarship.

So yeah, you could say I was motivated. All soccer, all the time. South Hawthorne, they didn’t stand a chance.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: The game was Friday. My family came. My parents, my sisters. Everyone was very excited. It was cold, as I remember it. Cold, but dry.

The game started well. I scored the first goal, I think it was in the fifth minute. I can’t remember it perfectly, but I think it was from outside the box. A longer shot. Yes, I think it went into the top corner.

It was good to get that goal so early. It’s always good to get an early goal. That year, teams were frightened of our offense, so they would sit back, keep their defense very, very tight. Make it very hard for us to do anything.

But when you get an early goal, it helps. Then the other team, they have to come out and play. They can’t sit back. They have to move forward. Which means there’s more chance for you to score a second goal.

Martha Sullivan, forward: Our second goal was in the 20th minute, I think. Somewhere around then. Maria set it up, big surprise. She and Daniela were right on the edge of the box, doing a little back-and-forth thing. You know, small little passes. The defense was totally focused on that, wondering how Maria was going to beat them.

Meanwhile, I’m in their blind spot, totally invisible. I make a quick little run to the back post, Maria slips a pass between a couple girls, and suddenly – Oh, wait, where did she come from? – I’m tapping it into goal.

Goodness me, how many goals did I score just like that? Maria Solana was a gift from heaven. Maria Solana got me my scholarship, plain and simple.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: So, it’s like the 30th minute and we’re up 2-0, and South Hawthorne’s getting desperate. They’re all like, Oh, dude, we gotta pick it up. We’ve gotta push forward, push forward, push forward, or else, you know, our season’s over. That’s what they’re thinking.

But what we’re thinking is, Yeah, fine, push forward all you want. That just means your defense’ll be all stretched out and we’re gonna punish you.

And that’s what happened on the third goal. They’re pushing forward, desperate. One of our girls gets the ball – Clementine, probably – she makes the quick outlet pass to Maria, and just like that, we’re charging down the field on a counter. Susan and Maria are over on the right side, pass, pass, pass, then Maria’s firing it into the back of the net. Boom, 3-0.

Everyone’s happy, all’s right in the world, and nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Wrong.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: Oh, dear sweet baby Jesus, how wrong it went. How wrong it went.

Ask yourself, What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to this team?

Yep, that’s what happened.

It was maybe the 38th minute? 39th? Right before the half. Remember, high school soccer has 40 minute halves, not 45 like everywhere else. So it was right about then. Just before half. We were up 3-0. Two goals for Solana, another for Sullivan. Everything’s going according to plan.

And then it happens.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: I remember it like it was yesterday. Awful play. Scary as hell.

It was another counter-attack. A really fast counter, right up the center of the field. I can’t remember who started it, who laid the pass out there, but it was a nice leading pass Maria could run onto.

So there’s the ball rolling along, Maria’s running full speed after it, the South Hawthorne defender’s coming full speed from the other direction, and sure enough, they get there at exactly the same time.

Was it a dirty play? I don’t know. Not really. Just bad luck. The defender went in low, Maria went in high, and next thing you know, Maria’s flying through the air. How far did she travel in the air? Five feet? Ten feet? 15? She did a full flip in the air, I know that. A full somersault, and I swear I’m not exaggerating. Ask anyone. She flipped head over heels, then crashed to the ground, like 10, 15 feet down the field. It was horrible. It was like something you’d see in a car race or something. Terrifying.

Well, no surprise, everything went silent. Everything. Both teams stopped, the people in the stands, the benches, the players on the field, everyone just went silent, eyes wide, holding their breath. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was standing there thinking, Is she even alive?

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: Watching it from the sideline, it couldn’t have looked worse. Maria actually flipped. Did you know that? She flipped, head over heels.

She didn’t hit her head, so that’s good. She landed kind of feet-first, but sideways, and really awkwardly, so her legs got all screwy under her. My immediate thought was, It’s her ACL. She just destroyed her knees. I had a couple teammates who did that in college, just ripped their knees to bits, so that’s the first place my mind went.

There was this pause of like, I don’t know, five or 10 seconds, where everyone was silent, just kind of looking at her, then time kind of started up again, and everyone raced over to help her. I ran out onto the field, the ref was there, the whole team was there, all of us surrounding Maria on the ground.

She was looking a little dazed, to be honest. The pain didn’t hit her right away. It’s like that sometimes.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: They say I did a flip, head over feet, but I don’t remember it. I just remember being on the ground, and all these people were around me, and I wasn’t sure how I got there.

It was my ankle that broke. My left ankle. I looked down at it, lying there on the ground, and it looked strange and was starting to hurt, and I knew something was very wrong. I’d never broken a bone, so I didn’t know for sure, but the pain, it started to get very bad, and then it was swelling, and I was thinking, Oh, it’s broken, isn’t it? This is very bad.

Susan Douglas, right winger: Believe it or not, I didn’t actually see the play because I was fixing my shoe. I know, right? Biggest play of the game – hell, biggest play of the season – and I didn’t even see it. But the girl I was covering, she’d stepped on my heel and given me a flat tire, so I was down on one knee, fixing that. I heard everything go silent and I looked up and Maria was on the ground and everything had just stopped and I was like, Uh oh, what did I miss?

The game was stopped, obviously, so I ran over to see what was up. We were all standing around her. The players, the ref, Coach. Maria’s face was all screwed up, just in agony. It was cold that day, too, which I’m sure didn’t make it any better, lying there on the hard ground, freezing her tail off. A couple girls got her up, one under each arm, and took her off the field. I think she went straight to the hospital, didn’t even stick around to see the rest of the game.

Which is probably for the best. The rest of the game was a disaster.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: It was pretty much my worst nightmare, losing Solana. She was that team. Other than the game where she was sick, she’d played pretty much every minute of every game, all season long. She was the straw that stirred our drink. Now, here we were in the playoffs and I had to find another straw.

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: I mean, you literally could not pick a worse player for us to lose. Lose me? Fine. Lose Sullivan? Fine. Hell, even lose Clementine and we’d survive. But lose Maria? That was worst case scenario. That was sum of all fears. We were an offensive-minded team and she was our offense.

I tell ya, when they carried her off the field, the rest of us were looking at each other like, Oh, damn. We’re screwed. Scuh-rewed. I mean, I was trying to be positive, trying to put on a good face. I didn’t want the girls to get too down, but it wasn’t easy. On the outside, I was like, “It’s okay, we got this,” but on the inside, I was like, Oh, God, we’re not okay. We ain’t got this.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: Halftime was the worst. Solana was heading off to the hospital, the rest of the team’s looking at me, hoping I’ve got some kind of plan, and I’m standing there with nothing. The East Sycamore game, when Maria had been sick? I’d replaced her with Lindsey Cash and she’d been halfway decent. But now, Lindsey was on the bench, injured. I don’t remember what is was. Foot. Groin. Doesn’t matter. My best player’s down and her backup’s down, too.

You remember that first practice, way back in the preseason? How bad I blew that? How it made me question whether I could be a good coach? Well, this was a thousand times worse. Standing there, all those girls looking at me, expecting me to have some answer, some way to save things, that was rock bottom. That took the wind right out of me. I was just standing there, my stomach in a knot, thinking, I’ve got nothing. I don’t know anything about coaching. I was just riding the Maria Solana train. And now that train’s broken down, so what the hell do I do now?

But, I had to do something, right? So I told Deavon Pope to get in there for Solana. Which was a joke. Pope was a sophomore, just a kid. She’d played a few times on the wing, but just to give people a breather. A little at left winger, a little at right. She’d never played in the center because, well, no one had. But I had to throw someone in there, so I picked her.

She didn’t want it, of course. Her eyes went wide – I remember it so clearly – her eyes went wide and she was shaking her head a little like, No, Coach, I can’t do that. But what was I gonna do?

Destinee Jones, left winger, team captain: It was a disaster. The offense couldn’t do anything. Completely stagnated. The defense was no better. We gave up two goals in about 15 minutes. It was awful. I hadn’t realized how much Maria helped our defense until Deavon came in there and just gave us nothing.

You know, it’s easy to blame Deavon for all of this, but the truth is, she was put into a can’t-win situation. She was just this little sophomore kid who never played and didn’t think she would play. Now suddenly she’s thrown into a game, in the playoffs, against a good team, and she’s supposed to replace Maria Solana? You gotta feel for her.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: That was a real eye-opener for me, watching Deavon stumbling around out there. It taught me that you can’t rely on one player so much, even if that player’s Maria Solana. It taught me to play my bench, to play my kids. Get ’em ready. Because you never know when your best player’s gonna go down. You gotta be ready. That’s what I learned that day.

But of course, those lessons didn’t help me then. They’ve helped me since, but they didn’t help me that day. That day all I could do was send this scared little backup winger out there and tell her to play central attacking midfielder. Tell her to run our offense. It was a mess.

Needless to say, we didn’t score any more. The offense was dead in the water. All season long, we’re an offensive juggernaut, and now we can hardly string two passes together. Spent pretty much the rest of the game back in our half, playing defense. Gave up two goals in, what, 10, 15 minutes? Could’ve given up three or four more. I think they hit the post a couple times. It was a nightmare.

Susan Douglas, right winger: At a certain point, Coach decided to flip me and Deavon. Put Deavon on the wing and give me a try in the middle.

Things got better. I didn’t really improve the offense, but the defense tightened up a little. I guess I just had a better sense of what Maria did in the center of the field. Defensively, I mean. Offensively, nothing really changed.

Well, no, that’s not true. We held a little possession, I guess. In fact, that’s probably why the defense improved, too. In the center of the pitch, I could hold the ball a little. Dink it out to Destinee, get it back, dink it over to Deavon, get it back. Make little passes back to Clementine, back to the defense. I gotta be honest, those last – what was it, 20 minutes? – I was just playing keep-away. We still had the lead, and I figured, if we can hold the ball for the rest of the game, we can’t give up another goal. So that’s what I did. Dribbled around a lot. Made safe passes. Didn’t try much going forward. Just played keep-away. Coach seemed okay with that. After giving up two goals in 15 minutes, she was just glad to stop the bleeding.

Nykesha Nolan, head coach: The only good thing that came out of that half was trying Susan Douglas in Solana’s spot. That improved things a bit. We could finally string a couple passes together. We could hold possession for a bit. It wasn’t great, but it was at least better. It was something to build on for the next game.

We ended up winning 3-2. Damn miracle. And then it was on to the semis. I had a week to figure out how to play a full game without Maria Solana.

Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: I was at the hospital until very late. So much waiting. I had an ice pack, but my ankle was still swollen and painful. Finally, they gave me the x-ray and saw it was broken, just like I’d thought. They put it into a boot and sent me home.

That was a terrible weekend for me. Not because of the pain or any of that, but because my heart was broken over the team. Yoreli came to the hospital after the game and told me everything. How we’d given up two goals, how everything had fallen apart. She was very sad. She didn’t think we could win the next game without me. It was so awful to hear. These girls, they had become my friends, my second family. And now they were going to the semifinal, and I couldn’t help them. It was heartbreaking.

So that weekend, at first I just wanted to be sad and miserable, but then I decided I had to stop that and think about the team. I had to find a way to help them, even with my broken ankle. Go to the practices. Go to the game. Help them get ready. I wasn’t sure how, but somehow. I had to do something.

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