Absegami girls soccer coach Elizabeth Lee was gracious with her time after the Braves lost the South Jersey Group IV final to Lenape by a score of 2-0 in Galloway Township on Friday afternoon. Lee answered question after question from the media members in attendance, never once making anyone feel like she'd rather be somewhere else.
And, the ironic part of it is that her team certainly took Cape-Atlantic League girls soccer observers on a real journey this season. Lee said the Braves (18-3 after their final game), who are currently the No. 3 team in The Press Elite 11 and were the No. 1 seed in Group IV, had two goals in 2010. They wanted to secure an invitation to the prestigious South Jersey Coaches Association Tournament and they also hoped to make the Group IV final.
That's heady stuff for a CAL team. There have been some good local girls teams in the past -- Oakcrest, Ocean City and Mainland in the last decade, to name a few -- but none of them carved out a reputation for the CAL like this 'Gami team. The Braves not only made the Coaches Tourney, but they reached the final.
They also made the Group IV title game, but longtime southern New Jersey power Lenape was standing in Absegami's way on both occasions. The 'Gami girls faced off with the Indians through 180 minutes of soccer over those two games, and Lenape comes out ahead by a 4-1 aggregate score.
But, don't think for a minute that Absegami didn't belong on this stage. Lee's possession style of soccer in which the ball is knocked around in small triangles set new standards for a CAL team. Of course, when you hope to play with the established powers such as Lenape, having a system is nice ... but you also must have the players to make it work.
And, in that sense, the Braves were fortunate. In senior striker Nicole Belfonti and junior midfielder Erica Skroski, they had two of the very best. I'm a soccer guy who loves the English Premier League, so you'll excuse me for making a few comparisons here. The tireless Belfonti plays like Manchester City's Carlos Tevez, while the lanky and languid Skroski reminds me of Liverpool's Steven Gerrard in the way she controls the middle of the park.
Make no mistake ... these analogies are not made lightly. As good as Lenape's freshman phenom Kate Walters is (she's kind of like a Fernando Torres, also of Liverpool), Belfonti and Skroski were the best 1-2 punch in South Jersey this season. But, that's not to say they did it all alone.
Players such as Ally Vitrano, Lea Manning and Alexis Robinson, all juniors, caught my eye with their high level of play, and they will help form the backbone of another run at the Group IV title next season. And, they have one of the biggest advantages in Lee.
On the comparison front, she's a lot like Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp in the Premier League ... committed to playing the "beautiful game." Lee preaches possession soccer, and her time as an SEC player with the University of Mississippi buys her a lot of cache with her players.
And, that's with good reason. I was struck by the pair of young girls who were running along the sideline during Friday's match. They were all decked out in their tracksuits, and they knew every player's name and number by heart ... and they couldn't have been more than 8 years old.
Ocean City High School (my alma mater; I graduated in 1988) built a similar soccer culture among local boys. If nothing else, Lee has thrown down the gauntlet. The 'Gami girls certainly could be the school to beat for the next few years. And, if they're lucky, the run could last for a decade or more.