South Jersey Futbol Club chasing down national championship in FloridaBy DAVE O'SULLIVAN
Ryan Pellegrino, a rising sophomore at Mainland Regional hasn't had much success convincing twins Trevor and Hunter Paone to wear green T-shirts or shorts. Likewise, the Paone boys likely won't see Pellegrino walking around in Ocean City red.
The South Jersey Futbol Club is made up of plenty of players who are rivals during the high school soccer season, but who have come together as friends and competitors to form one of the best U16 teams in the nation. The team, which consists of 17 players and coaches Lou Paone and Mike Pellegrino, currently is in Auburndale, Fla., for the President's Cup — basically the national championship for this age level.
South Jersey Futbol Club tied teams from St. Louis and California the past two days, both with 1-1 scores, and a win over a team from Dallas could put the squad into the national championship game, depending on pool play records and goal differential.
"We're very excited. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not many teams get to do this. We knew right from the beginning that we were a good team. Right when we started, we knew we had something. Once we started the State Cup, we knew we had a chance. The first team we played in the regular season, we played them in the finals, so we kind of knew what they were like and were able to dominate them and win 3-0. After that, we knew we could do something with this team," said Hunter Paone, who, along with Trevor, will be a junior at Ocean City in the fall. "We have rivalries during the high school season, but we're all friends and we like hanging out together. A couple of the guys, we didn't know that much. I knew a couple of the guys from Mainland, but Atlantic City, EHT, I didn't really know those guys so it's been nice to meet new people and gain some new friends."
"It's really been fun for me, and everybody else on the team. Having that connection (as friends) plays out on the field because we're able to trust them on the field," said Ryan Pellegrino. "It's a completely different experience. Being on this team for 10 years now, this is really different — playing against teams from other states, it's just awesome to be able to do. Coming from South Jersey, then meeting kids from Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, there are different styles of play."
First the team had to make it through the New Jersey State Cup, which consisted of 24 teams. It was an open-style tournament, meaning any team in that age bracket could enter, and the tournament was a blind draw. South Jersey Futbol Club won all four of its games there to advance to the Northeast Regional, which was held in West Virginia. The team squeaked out a 3-2 win in the opening round of bracket play, then, behind the defense and some outstanding goalkeeping from Ocean City's Brain Calderon, posted four straight shutouts to finish 5-0 and advance to the four-team national championship.
"It's pretty exciting stuff. When Mike and I started this two years ago, we never envisioned we would be in this spot. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we're really excited. Mike coached the travel team over at Mainland for middle school and I coached the team from Upper Township. I reached out to Mike when these guys were in eighth grade and said, 'hey, when these guys go to high school, let's consider merging teams.' It was tough in the beginning because they kind of stayed in their own groups, but as the season wore on they started to trust each other and blend together. It was a work in progress, but now they are the point where they genuinely trust each other, they know each other's moves, and it's a very cohesive team," Lou Paone said during a recent interview on 97.3 ESPN FM. "Mike and I just thought we could provide a very competitive program at a cheap rate. This is just our second year in existence, and to have this kind of success is exciting.
The club plays a possession style of soccer and relies on its defense, goalkeeping and speed to win games, and that formula has been successful so far in the postseason. SJFC, heading into Saturday's game against Dallas, was 9-0-2 in 11 games. The team consists of the Paones, Calderon, Matt Leap, Matt Brook and Luke Varallo of Ocean City; Pellegrino, Danny Alejo and George Arsenis of Mainland; Ben Hannemann and Dylan Blauvelt of Southern Regional; P.J. Brittain and Nick Talvecchio of EHT; twins Marko and Mario Grdic of Cedar Creek; Ryan Duatt of Atlantic City; and Julian Cruz of ACIT.
"We're looking for possession, that's been our strong suit on the field," Ryan Pellegrino said. "We trust each other, passing through out defense to our goalie, and breaking down opponents' defense to transition up the field and score."
South Jersey likely needs a win on Saturday to advance to the national championship game, but no matter how the team finishes in Florida, it's been a fun ride this summer for the boys, coaches and families. And Lou Paone said this summer season is getting everyone excited for high school soccer in September.
"The reason for our name is because we are drawing from competitive soccer programs from throughout South Jersey," he said. "A lot of these teams compete against each other during the high school season, so it think It will make this upcoming season pretty neat."
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays