Scottsdale Blackhawks may emerge as perennial national contender

The 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys soccer team pose for a picture after winning the National Premier Leagues Finals championship in their age group, making them national champions. (Submitted Photo)

Not only was the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks Elite Clubs National League Boys soccer team winning emphatically at the National Premier Leagues Finals — they were also making history.

The 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys, comprised of players born in 2004 and a member of the Scottsdale Blackhawks soccer club, was at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. from July 13-17 and won the NPL Finals, making them national champions, the club’s first ever.

Throughout the course of the tournament, the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys exercised dominance as the team outscored its opponents 21–2

“We are all excited to see the boys hard work and dedication pay off,” Head Coach of the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys Clayton Zelin said in a July 18 response to emailed questions.

“To see the excitement of the boys, our 01 Boys, 03 Girls and parents after the referee blew the final whistle was truly inspiring.”

The 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys were not alone in its endeavor for a title as the 03 Scottsdale Blackhawks Girls and 01 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys also made it to the NPL Finals, but were unable to win the title.

The Scottsdale Blackhawks are the competitive program of the nonprofit organization Scottsdale Soccer.

This year, the Blackhawks provided soccer opportunities for about 1,600 boys and girls on over 100 teams across Scottsdale, Phoenix and Prescott, according to the club’s website.

Those teams — which service athletes ages seven to 19 — have a professional coach leading the charge as well as a team manager who focuses primarily on administrative duties, the site states.

The NPL Finals is a culmination of a year-long, league-based competition. It features qualifiers from age groups for both boys and girls whose birth years range from 1998-2004, according to the NPL website.

At this event, 150 teams from 99 clubs competed from 22 regional National Premier Leagues from across the country. In each age group, the tournament features two different stages of competition.

The first is group play where teams play each team in their respective groups and accumulate points for wins and draws. Certain teams advance to the knockout round where teams play until a national champion is crowned.

Adam Burke, director of coaching of the ECNL boys division, said winning a tournament such as this has many positive effects on the club as a whole.

“It sets a new standard,” Mr. Burke said in a July 18 phone interview. “It shows and tells everybody in the club that it can be done.”

Recapping the weekend

Coming out of the Arizona National Premier League, the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys had strong showings in the group stage.

A member of the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys smothers an opposing player with staunch defense during the NPL Finals in Westfield, Ind. (Submitted Photo)

Outscoring opponents 15–0, the team advanced to the semifinals where it played Cincinnati United Premier 04 Gold out of Ohio, winning 4–1.

In the finals, the 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys met Chicago Inferno 04 Elite out of Illinois and squeezed out a 2–1 victory for the championship.

Coach Zelin said this stellar performance was a reflection of how the team prepared and played throughout the season.

“The boys were training in 110-plus degrees leading into the national championship and they never complained and gave their all,” he said. “When we got to Indiana, it all seemed routine even though it was against top-level competition.”

The 03 Scottsdale Blackhawks Girls did not get out of group play but recorded a win, loss and draw during their tournament competition.

After an 5–0 loss to kick off group play, the 03 Scottsdale Blackhawks Girls bounced back with a 2–0 victory. However, a scoreless draw was not enough for the team to advance.

Head Coach of the 03 Scottsdale Blackhawks Girls Jennifer Jeffers said she thought the team’s victory in that contest was their best performance of the year.

Although the team didn’t win the tournament, Coach Jeffers said she thinks the team’s biggest takeaway is playing at a competition like that yields a confidence boost.

“Now that they have been to a national event and experienced the anticipation, pressure and nerves that go along with it, they will be even more equipped to handle it the next time they get on any large stage,” she said.”It’s something they will carry with them for years to come.”

The 01 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys team was unable to pick up a victory throughout the tournament, falling to opponents by a combined score of 8–1. The team’s closest match was a 1–0 loss.

While the team suffered defeat, Coach Burke, who led the 01 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys in the tournament, said the experience was still beneficial to his players.

“What you hope to get from it in our situation is that the boys can remember what it’s like to play at that level and what it takes to play at the top level,” he said.

“What they hopefully learn from it is where their weaknesses are and where their strengths are and to improve on their weaknesses and to make their strengths stronger.”

The experience

Although the end result differed for each of the three Scottsdale Blackhawks teams, each coach commented on the experience the players had at the event.

The 04 Scottsdale Blackhawks ECNL Boys huddle on the field during the NPL Finals in Westfield, Ind. (Submitted Photo)

That experience varied from team to team but each coach said playing at a national stage had an affect on them and their respective team.

Coach Zelin said he would describe his experience at the NPL Finals as unbelievable.

“It is not every week that clubs and players have an opportunity to compete for a national championship,” he said. “Every team we played had top-level quality and the boys performed fantastic to be named the best.”

Coach Burke said just getting to the NPL Finals was fun and enjoyable because of all the hard work players put into prior to the event.

On the flip side, he said the atmosphere was competitive at a top-notch facility and his team felt that competitive aura in each match it played.

“It’s definitely one of those competitions where you either bring your best or you don’t,” he said. “You need a little luck and you need the ball to bounce your way.”

With there being many high-caliber teams on a national stage, Coach Jeffers said she noticed a lot of nervousness from her team.

This was the first time at a national event, she said, making for a bit of an overwhelming experience in the early going.

That all changed after the first match, which ended in a loss.

“I was so impressed with their professionalism throughout the week and with their willingness to learn from each game,” Coach Jeffers said.

To help her team navigate the competitive environment, Coach Jeffers said her team had team meetings to stay focused on its team and individual goals.

She said her team responded well and she noticed the players had a stronger commitment to their day-to-day preparations such as resting, hydrating and stretching.

“I think they learned how important physical and mental preparation is not only leading into the tournament but every day that you are at the event,” she said.

With the 2016-17 season now wrapped up, the Scottsdale Blackhawks will turn their attention to the start of their 2017-18 season in the coming months.

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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