The Cook Inlet Soccer Club's U-17 girls team that opens play Thursday in the national championship tournament in South Carolina earned its berth with a rebirth at regionals – after losing its first two games, it unleashed a goal binge and reeled off four straight victories.
The Cook Inlet U-16 boys team that also opens play at nationals Thursday likewise rebounded quickly at regionals last month in California. After losing its first game at regionals, the U-16 crew cranked off five straight wins and earned a trip to nationals on the strength of Caleb VanBlankenstein's phenomenal goalkeeping when the championship game went to penalty kicks.
With U.S. Youth Soccer Region IV titles in hand, the Anchorage teams seek the biggest prize in age-group soccer at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Presidents Cup in Greenville, South Carolina.
Each team will play three games in its four-team group – single games on Thursday, Friday and Saturday – and then advance to either the championship game or consolation game on Sunday.
Tim Valesko, who coaches the Cook Inlet U-17 girls, said heavy winds on the first two days of the Region IV tournament in Morgan Hill, California, blunted his team's skill.
"It just turned into a game of 'hit the ball and hope,' and we came out on the wrong end,'' Valesko said.
But when the wind settled down after that, the U-17 girls unsettled opponents, outscoring them 18-3 in the last four matches.
Malia Lyken delivered hat tricks in two straight matches, and in three of the last four matches, to lead the tournament in goals with nine. Alexa Starr also produced a hat trick, and Haleigh Van Allen furnished single goals in five of the team's six matches.
The Cook Inlet girls in the regional final defeated the Crossfire Selects of Washington, 5-0, to avenge a 3-1 loss to Crossfire in group play.
"Psychologically, (the players) are in a great place,'' Valesko said. "Region IV is known as a good region, so to win that gives us confidence going into nationals.''
Cook Inlet's U-16 boys won the Region IV title by beating IUSC Brasil of California, 2-1, on penalty kicks. That championship match was tied 1-1 after overtime – Talon Stanley's second-half goal kept the Alaskans alive – and the aptly-named VanBlankenstein stopped all three penalty kicks he faced.
"I've never seen anything like that,'' said U-16 boys coach Matt Froehle.
Cook Inlet's Brendon Doyle tied for the regional lead in goals with four and Britton Clifford added three.
In South Carolina, the Alaskans are likely to face withering heat in the 90s, and stifling humidity. Rules at nationals, however, permit unlimited substitutions, so most players should get periodic breathers.