Just two minutes into overtime of the Under-16 Girls final at the 2013 US Youth Soccer National Championships, presented by the National Guard, Kings Hammer Academy’s (OH-S) Lauren Nemeroff found herself with the chance of a lifetime.
The speedy forward buried her shot in the bottom corner with two defenders surrounding her to put Kings Hammer up 2-1 against DMCV Sharks (CA-S).
“It was an adrenaline rush. I was very tired at that point. My coaches told me to take on someone any chance I had and to use my speed. I hoped for the best and it went in,” Nemeroff said. “It was an amazing feeling, and at that moment I thought we would win.”
However, the Sharks would not go away as Natalie Saddic scored the equalizer in the second overtime period to send the match into penalty kicks. DMCV Sharks won in penalty kicks, 5-3, marking the second time in as many years Kings Hammer lost the US Youth Soccer National Championship final to a California-South team. Kings Hammer lost to Legends FC (CA-S) 1-0 in the finals of the 2012 National Championships on a late goal by Peyton Perea.
“Obviously it is disappointing how the last two years ended, but we are still very proud of what we accomplished, and we are going to use those losses as motivation for this year,” Nemeroff said. “We see the pictures of the Sharks and Legends winning the National Championship, and it definitely fuels us to win the championship this year.”
For Kings Hammer coach Jon Pickup, those finals results are certainly important, but he doesn’t let them take away from what his team accomplished in the last two years.
“Once the whistle blows, it’s devastating for everyone, including the players, parents and coaching staff. Both games were very close, especially the last one. I thought both teams deserved to win,” Pickup said. “One game of soccer cannot be the scale for the entire season, and you have to be excited and pleased with everyone’s effort. All I ask is for them to give their best effort, and some games we will win, and some we will lose.”
Kings Hammer Academy is back at the US Youth Soccer National Championships for a third straight year, using the US Youth Soccer National League as their avenue for qualification yet again. The Ohio side finished in second place of the Red Division (5-2-0) this year after a second place finish last year in the Blue Division (5-0-2). In 2012, Kings Hammer was the only team in any National League age group with a perfect 7-0-0 record.
“The National League provides great teams for us to play, whether they are on the top or bottom of the standings, and if you have an off day you are going to get beat,” Pickup said. “Qualifying early allows us to have more time to prepare, as well as give some time off so the girls can be U-17 girls in the real world.”
Pickup is quick to point out that one of his favorite parts about the setup of the National League is that a lot of different teams stay at the same hotel, which allows for competitiveness on the field, and mutual respect off the field.
“You can play a great 90 minutes on the field, and then sit down in the hotel and just talk about the game and each other’s players,” Pickup said. “We have such a good respect for each other, which makes it fun for me.”
While Nemeroff acknowledges the great level of competition and the respect she has for her competitors, she insists a rivalry has developed among the Cal-South and Midwest teams.
“I think there has become a triangle rivalry between Legends, Sharks and us because DMCV Sharks beat Legends in group stage last year, and they both beat us in the last two National Championship games,” Nemeroff said. “It is an underlying rivalry, but it makes things a little more intense and fun.”
Nemeroff is never slow to credit her teammates as much as possible, including when she was awarded the Golden Ball, which goes to the most outstanding field player, at last year’s National Championships. Nemeroff was also selected to the Best XI team for the second straight year.
“It felt very good to win the Golden Ball, and I was proud of myself, but I feel so many people on my team deserved it because we all worked so hard,” Nemeroff said. “It was definitely a consolation, but it could have been shared all around the team.”
Due to their continued success, the spotlight has become commonplace for Nemeroff and her teammates, and college coaches certainly took notice with many players being committed to NCAA Division I schools. Nemeroff ended her recruitment during her Under-15 season by committing to the University of Kentucky, where she will join teammate Payton Atkins.
“You walk down the sidelines of these tournaments and 50 college coaches are watching. It provides a great opportunity to play in front of so many coaches, and for me it provides motivation that has made me play better,” Nemeroff said. “Payton and I were separate as far as recruiting goes, but we have been playing with each other for a long time and I am excited to play with her in college.”
While Pickup and his players certainly have plenty of accomplishments to hang their hats on, there is still one championship that has eluded them.
“One of the girls’ goals is to win the National Championship. We have been so close twice, and it is a tribute to their attitude and getting better every year,” Pickup said. “We have one more year after this and then the girls will go their separate ways. There will be some friendships breaking, and it would really be nice to win the National Championship.”
For Nemeroff, winning the National Championship would be something she and her teammates have wanted for so long, and these past two years have only made them hungrier.
“Winning the National Championship would mean all of the hard work has paid off,” Nemeroff said. “If we happen to beat a Cal-South team in the finals, then that would be icing on the cake. To bring the National Championship back to the region would be a great feeling and great achievement.”