Pittsburgh Hotspurs players reflect on trip to U.S. Youth Soccer nationals

Sunday, August 1, 2021 | 9:07 AM

The Pittsburgh Hotspurs U16 (2005) Blue girls soccer team put it all together this spring and summer for a run to the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in Sarasota, Fla.

Gateway rising juniors Madi Jesih and Emily Mannion were big parts of the team’s success.

“Nationals was one of the toughest tournaments we had all year,” said Mannion, a center midfielder.

The Hotspurs played in three qualifying games at nationals, from July 20-22, and went 0-2-1. The two games they lost were by one goal.

“We deserved to be there, and we showed that,” Mannion said.

In pool play, the Hotspurs, with rising juniors and sophomores from Gateway, Plum, Yough, Norwin, Latrobe, Oakland Catholic, Mt. Lebanon and DuBois, tied Broomfield (Colo.) Soccer Club Blast 1-1 before falling 1-0 to Total Futbol Academy (Ohio) and 3-2 to Collierville (Tenn.) Lady Lobos Rush Premier.

“It was an extremely competitive environment,” said Jesih, a center defensive back.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the results we wanted, but it was an honor for me and my teammates to make it that far. We were one of only eight teams at nationals in our age group from a lot of teams throughout the country.

“The team bonded even further over these last few tournaments, going to regionals and nationals. We were so accountable to each other, and we really pushed each other to be the best. Even though we worked hard, we still managed to have fun.”

The journey to nationals for the Hotspurs started with a division win in the USYS Great Lakes Conference and capturing the PA State Cup.

The team punched its ticket to nationals with a 5-0-1 record and the title at the 20-team Eastern Regional last month in Hammonton, N.J. It outscored its opponents 23-9 overall.

It won its regional semifinal game in a shootout and topped Syracuse Development Academy, 4-3, in the finals.

“We knew nationals was going to be pretty close,” Hotspurs coach Thomas Ovenden said. “The tie was probably our hardest game. The two we lost, we probably should’ve taken more control of those games. I felt we lost them more than the other team won them. But their effort was phenomenal, as it was all season. We learned a lot for moving forward, for sure.”

Ovenden said he was impressed with what Mannion and Jesih brought to the table all season.

“Emily brings a real intensity,” he said. “She’s going to be one of those girls who runs through a brick wall for you and gives you every ounce of energy she has. She has a real good character and spirit for the team.

“Madi has that similar fire, but she’s more of a quiet personality that goes about her business. She’s almost like a point guard for the team who makes sure to get the ball in the right spot and make sure everyone is playing well together.”

The national tournament capped the 2021 season for the Hotspurs.

“It was crazy to think that we could make it that far, but we worked so hard and put in so much effort all year,” Mannion said. “We really played as one cohesive unit. It really paid off in the end.”

The team members, Mannion said, already are planning for another run at nationals next year at the U17 level.

“We’re already thinking about going back to Florida,” she said.

The focus for each player now turns to the high school season. Preseason practices begin Aug. 16.

Jesih and Mannion both are excited for what the Gators can do in and out of Section 1-3A. Gateway will play section games against Armstrong, Franklin Regional, Hampton, Indiana, Kiski Area and Knoch,

Gateway last fall battled through covid issues and schedule changes to finish 7-9 overall and 5-7 in section play. The Gators suffered a loss to WPIAL finalist Plum in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs.

Plum’s Cami Collins, Kaitlyn Killinger, Kaley Simqu and Ava Weleski are teammates with Jesih and Mannion on the Hotspurs.

“Emily and I have always been super competitive with each other,” Jesih said.

“We’ve played together since we were 7, and it’s so much fun to be able to play together with someone I’ve known for so long. We can read each other so well. I haven’t played a game without her in I don’t know how long.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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