A map of the national youth soccer landscape is filled with clubs, big and small, along with states and regions that are known for historical successes and signature styles of play.
Keystone FC is trying to squeeze its name onto that map. Now in the club’s third year since a rebrand and change in philosophy, it has found a team that is starting to do just that.
Keystone FC Premier 03 (PA-E) found ways to win several close games in Spotsylvania, Va., on its way to claiming the 15U Girls US Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championship. In doing so, it added itself to the regional record books and took a step into the national scene.
Moments after being doused by his players with water and ice from a big red cooler in a surprise celebration, coach Sean Cochran talked about how excited his team is to be making a splash at Regionals and seeing its approach lead to results.
“We focused very early on technical development. We wanted to make sure our players are technically sound, good with the ball at their feet and that they can connect passes and move off of passes,” Cochran said. “The focus has shifted over the last year or two to more tactical understandings and development, and they’ve really taken to it.
“We were finding success early on, locally, and then a little bit more in the state and regionally. Now, it’s exciting to have a chance to have success at the national level.”
Cochran has been coaching this team for five years and the core of current group began playing together three years ago. It’s around that time, in 2016, that the club evolved from one primarily serving its hometown of Mechanicsburg, Pa., to one comprised of players form a variety of areas in the local region — generating a shift in name to Keystone FC.
Many of the Keystone FC Premier 03 players are a 30-minute drive, or less, away — a relatively small commute in comparison to some of the larger clubs in the country. And while the team is fairly close geographically, the players are even closer through the bonds they’ve formed on and off the field.
At regionals in Spotsylvania, Va., the team spent as much time together as possible, from watching World Cup games together to pregame walks to player-favorite friendly card games. And that togetherness translates onto the soccer field.
“It’s a team that plays together. They’re not individuals. They encourage one another. They push one another,” Cochran said. “They compete in practice. They’re one of the most fun groups I’ve ever coached because they are together and will do anything for anyone because they are a team.”
The solidarity among the team has certainly been a factor in its success, but it’s not the only one. Cochran said the team has risen to every challenge and the players have “worked their tails off” during this season, which started back in August.
Forward Elena Hinkson, who scored the overtime winner in the team’s 1-0 victory in the Eastern Regional Championships final, said the team has bought into what goes into having success at this level of competition.
“When we started, we weren’t the strongest,” said Hinkson, who’s been with the team for four years. “We’ve been working off the field, lifting and doing speed and agility. We’ve definitely come very far from the beginning. We’re not a very big team, so we know winning all 50-50 balls will help us get really far.”
In the eyes of the Keystone coach, that work paid dividends as spring has turned into summer. It began with Premier 03 winning the club’s first Eastern Pennsylvania State Cup in May.
With the stakes — and temperatures — raised at regionals in Virginia, the team displayed an ability to earn the necessary results in tightly-contested matches. In all, during its run to the state and regional titles, five of Keystone’s eight wins were decided by just one goal.
The key to that success in close games can be partly attributed to the team’s bond. Hinkson said the players rarely get down on each other and have a knack for staying positive, even when falling behind in a game. Defensive center mid Grace Sibert echoed that feeling.
“We’ve always supported each other, whether we win or lose,” Sibert said. “Coach does a really good job to make sure we’re all together. We don’t have any drama on our team. And being a part of such a close team — where we can fight through anything like the heat or being down — it’s an awesome feeling.”
While a good part of the team has been together for a few years, Sibert has been part of Keystone FC Premier 03 for only about 15 months. Despite that, she said it was a very welcoming feeling and she felt like a part of the team from day one.
“It’s been the best soccer decision of my life,” Sibert said. “It’s such a good atmosphere. I love my coach. I love my team. It helps we’re good; that’s obviously a plus. But what we’ve been able to accomplish and the camaraderie between us — it’s awesome.”
For the 15U side, each accomplishment over the past two months has blazed a trail for Keystone FC. And each feat moving forward will be a first for the club.
It’s only fitting Premier 03’s primary characteristic is the players’ ability to stick together. Now, they move on to the national stage to represent a club and state whose nickname — Keystone — refers to the stone that holds a structure together.
“Putting our club on the map is an honor for our team,” Hinkson said. “We’re definitely a smaller club. When people ask, ‘What club are you from?’ They never know Keystone FC. Now that people start to know and hear what our club is all about, it will definitely help bring us bigger things.”