Barrington resident Ann Marie Niro knew what it was like to play for a national title.
She remembered in detail the experience of reaching the championship match of the Elite Clubs National League National Finals with her U-14 teammates on the Eclipse Select Soccer Club three years ago. Eclipse Select was unable to equal that level of success the last two years. In fact, last season, Eclipse Select did not even advance to the ECNL finals.
“We played really well in the first half of the season and we thought it would come easy to us,” she said. “We were a little [too] confident.”
Niro and her teammates realized they would have to improve — on and off the field. This season, a closer bond helped propel Niro’s U-17 team back to the ECNL National Finals in Richmond, Virginia. Eclipse Select went 2-0-1 in pool play to reach the championship match, where it lost 1-0 to the Dallas Sting on July 17, the same team that defeated Eclipse Select in the championship match three years ago.
“It was an amazing experience,” Niro said. “We were consistent all year and built ourselves into the team we are.”
At the regional tournament, Eclipse Select outscored the opposition 9-0 in three matches. In the semifinal match at the national tournament, Niro’s assist set up Chelsea Burns for a goal with five minutes remaining to break a scoreless tie.
“We all went crazy but then we realized we couldn’t let a goal in,” Niro said.
Niro made her presence felt throughout the tournament. Coach Mike Nesci said Niro elevated every area of her play this season.
“She is the link in our midfield who best connects us to our forwards,” Nesci said. “She put in some great performances leading up to the playoffs and in the playoffs she contributed with some important passes that led to goals. She led by example [with] her positivity and her work rate.”
In addition to Niro, other local players on the roster include Caroline Dempsey (Lincolnshire), Riley Sykes (Gurnee), Jessica Ritchie (Glencoe), Sydney Griffin (Hinsdale) and Aspyn Repp (Lake Bluff).
Since the team was spread out geographically — primarily with players from Illinois and Indiana — building a team dynamic can be challenging. But the girls made the commitment to get to know one another off the field, and that’s why team sleepovers were can’t-miss affairs. The team also watched the United States men’s soccer team play a World Cup match on the big screen at Solider Field.
“The team get-togethers were so much fun,” Niro said. “We were really able to get to know each other.”
Added Ritchie, “We really focused on being a team and that made an extra difference and transferred onto the field.”
Nesci said the chemistry this season made the U-17 Eclipse Select a particularly enjoyable team to coach.
“This is a team without superstars, a team that has to rely on one another to be successful,” Nesci said. “Their togetherness is what made this so memorable for me.”