Smithtown Kickers SC Arsenal (E-NY) front man TJ Butzke used a variety of words to describe Smithtown’s Cinderella run to win the 2013 US Youth Soccer National Championships. However, the one word interlaced in every account was, “special.”
Winning the Region I Championships? Special. Defeating the two-time defending National Champions? Special. Winning the Golden Ball Award? Special. Winning the National Championship?
“When we made it the first time in 2011, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Butzke said. “We really didn’t expect to get back for a second year, let alone win it. It really is special.”
You’ll never guess what word Smithtown coach, Tom Lips, used to describe one of his captains.
“TJ really is a very special player. He is very dynamic, spirited and consistently eager to win,” Lips said. “He has a special engine inside him that keeps going. You can’t coach it. You can try to enhance it, but at the end of the day his motivation and drive to win at the elite level is incredible.”
Their first trip to the National Championships in 2011 was anything but special. Smithtown lost all three games and were outscored 11-2. However, Lips credits it as a learning experience and a stepping stone to greater things.
“2011 was definitely an eye opener. We struggled with the climate, time change and we got outplayed,” Lips said. “Obviously, the second time around we went in better prepared. Had we not gone in 2011, we wouldn’t have had the success we had last year. “
Butzke also identifies Smithtown’s first trip to the National Championships as a learning experience in regards to the players taking care of themselves on and off the field.
“Last year we knew what not to do. Our first time we were in the pool all day and had a later curfew,” Butzke said. “We knew if we wanted to compete we were going to have to change some things.”
Both Lips and the players agreed to a 7 p.m. curfew, as well as eating right and utilizing ice baths after each game. The results were obvious when Smithtown won its first two games against CCV Stars 97 Black (AZ) and NASA 15 Elite (GA). Butzke scored in each of those games, including the game winner against NASA in the 49th minute to secure a 2-1 victory and a date with the two-time defending champions, Fullerton Rangers 96 White (CA-S). Fullerton defeated Smithtown 4-0 in 2011 en route to its first National Championship.
“Fullerton is a very good team. They pass very well, and each player is very technically sound. After the first time we played them, we knew we had to change our tactical approach,” Lips said. “Most of the time we are very attacking-oriented, but in big games we try to play a little more defensively due to the amount of talent on the other team.”
Fullerton, who only needed a tie to advance to the finals, had outscored their opponents 31-0 spanning three National Championships, including 10-0 in the first two games of 2013. However, it was Smithtown who struck first in the 18th minute when Christopher Hettler headed in a corner kick. Smithtown’s defensive endured a barrage from the defending champs, but it ultimately came up unscathed for a 1-0 win.
“No team is thrilled to see the two-time national championships on the schedule, and all you hear is that Fullerton is winning the National Championships, National League and Dallas Cup,” Butzke said. “It was a huge mountain to climb, but we got out early and everything went our way. We knew that after beating Fullerton there was no way we would lose in the finals.”
Smithtown defeated GSA Phoenix 97 Red (GA) in the Under-16 final, 2-0, and Butzke managed to find the score sheet again in the 12th minute when Casey Abelein redirected Douglas Toledo’s cross to Butzke on the left side of the box. Butzke’s initial attempt was subdued by the GSA defense, but his resiliency allowed him to bury the rebound to give Smithtown a 1-0 lead. Harrison Weilbacher doubled the lead in the 63rd minute to seal the victory, and the National Championship.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Butzke said. “The way we went out the first time will get a group of kids motivated. It is just great to see all of this hard work pay off. When we went the first year, I saw the awards ceremony and thought that had to be the coolest thing ever. Then when they called my name last year as the most outstanding player, it is a feeling I can’t explain.”
For Lips, he is quick to mention the 10 players on the team who are from the original town of Smithtown, N.Y., something you just don’t find often among national champions.
Butzke admits the team has seen a heavy increase in attention from other teams and also college coaches after the national championships.
“I can’t tell you the amount of opportunities I’ve had strictly from the National League and National Championships,” Butzke said. “It’s a part of life, being able to introduce yourself and shake someone’s hand. It is practice for the real world where you have to be able to communicate and create a good first impression.”
But for now Butzke’s focus remains on soccer, where Smithtown finds itself with a target on its back after winning last year and the 2013-14 National League Red Division with a 6-0-1 record; conceding only two goals).
When asked about the potential of winning back-to-back National Championships, Butzke comes up with the only fitting response.
“It would truly be special.”