A Cinderella Story

Baseball, that All-American favorite, continues to attract an abundance of players, spectators and media coverage, both locally and nationally.

But though it’s received less notice, there’s a new game in town–soccer–and it’s drawing its own share of dedicated athletes, parents and fans.

While the roughly dozen games each of the three (Under12, Under14 and Under17) Worthington teams played this summer have generated little more than box-score mentions in the Daily Globe’s sports section on a regular basis, Saturday’s feature article by Sports Editor Doug Wolter highlighted the fact that ALL of the teams were about to enter the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association’s state tournament. This is indeed a feat, indicating they made it into the top 10 of approximately 80 teams in each age category competing across Minnesota.

The older two Worthington teams carried undefeated records into and out of the play-offs, thus qualifying automatically for the state tournament–but the U12’s, holding a 6-2-2 regular season record and in their first season together in a competitive league, had a more difficult path to navigate. Last weekend, they were involved in district play-offs on two consecutive days at Fairmont. They finished second, losing on Sunday to the only team that had defeated them (twice) in regular-season play–St. Peter.

That loss thrust them into a two-day battle for redemption in the state qualifier bracket, taking them on two eight-hour round trips via unairconditioned school bus last Tuesday and Wednesday (when the temperatures climbed to 92 and 94 degrees) to confront foes at a Hudson, Wis., soccer complex. Despite the long journeys, and the fact their opponents traveled in air conditioned comfort no more than half an hour each way to arrive at the playing field (and reclined under color-coordinated sun shades upon arrival), the hearty Worthington contingent prevailed.

Led by spirited father-daughter volunteer coaches Smitty and Nicole Ektnitphong, the 13-member crew first defeated the Wright County (Buffalo area) team on Tuesday 4-1 and then Woodbury on Wednesday 4-0, much to their opponents’ surprise.

But their wins were not as big a shock to parents and a few additional team followers, because it’s been clear from their early practices in May this team has heart. Full disclosure: my youngest son is part of this eclectic band of brothers, which embraces its talented stars (Mooday Wah of Karen descent, Johnny Keodouangsy, whose parents hail from Eritrea and Laos, or Anthony Euceda, one of the team’s several Hispanic athletes) as well as its more workaday players. Make no mistake, this is one colorful team, and despite their many apparent differences, from family backgrounds and native languages to ability levels, they have bonded over their love of soccer and a healthy sense of competition.

It’s the joy with which they play, and the determined yet fun attitudes they have brought to each practice, that is most evident in watching these boys. They support each other with a generosity that is not always seen in sports, they’ve never been known to grumble behind their hands in twos or threes about another teammate who might not be pulling his weight or made an error and they share everything they’ve got–whether it’s sticky rice in individual baggies, watermelon slices, Laotian beef jerky or Starburst squares.

The result of this camaraderie has been continued team success and the skill advancement of each player. Yesterday (Sunday) the intrepid parents and players made yet another lengthy trip–this time, only about six hours round-trip to an impressive Lakeville soccer complex, where they were capably coached by parent volunteer Mike Kangkong in the Ektnitphongs’ absence–and soundly defeated the Northfield squad 5-1 (and that lone opposing goal came from a penalty kick awarded by a questionable referee call favoring the other team). In this round-robin tournament format, the Worthington U12’ers will be at Lakeville once again on Tuesday at 5 p.m., this time matched against a tough team from Chippewa Falls, Wis.

That meeting’s outcome will either end their season or launch them into the state U12 championship game, so it won’t be clear until Tuesday evening if the Worthington U12 soccer kids’ glass slipper really fits.

But even if this Cinderella story falls a little short of a fairy tale ending, don’t worry. Their “coach” already turned into a hot yellow school bus, however skillfully and amiably driven it was by Marty Whelan of Bud’s Bus Service, and yet they charged good-naturedly ahead–no fairy godmother required–equally prepared to meet the “Prince Charming” of victory or the wicked stepmother of defeat with smiles on their sweaty, determined faces.


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