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Three-peat complete: 5 memories from Flash’s championship season

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Nothing was easy about Western New York’s post-season run to a third straight championship. Conceding early deficits became the norm, as the Flash only led for a meager 12 minutes over the entire WPSL Elite playoffs and trailed for 121 of the 210 minutes in the semifinal and the final.

Fortunately for Flash head coach Aaran Lines, his team’s resilient spirit and exceptional fitness overturned two late deficits, and Western New York solidified its place as a women’s soccer dynasty.

Story-lines pervaded the Flash’s quest for a title, which was perhaps the toughest yet given the team’s youth (average age of 24). Many saw the Boston Breakers as the team to beat for much of the season, while no one wanted to face Paul Riley’s New York Fury squad in the playoffs. Still, Western New York reigned supreme, flanking the Fury 2-1 in the semifinal and inching past the Chicago Red Stars 4-2 in penalties after a 1-1 draw through extra-time.

1) Shot heard ‘round the world: If it wasn’t for Toni Pressley’s marvelous strike in the sixth minute of stoppage time in the final, Rory Dames’ Red Stars would be gallivanting around Chicago with a WPSL Elite Championship. It was the most awe-inducing, dynamic moment of any sporting event I’ve ever covered, and it’s worthy of several YouTube views below:

“I wanted to take a really good first touch and get it on frame,” Pressley admitted after the victory. “I knew there was a defender coming at me, so I wanted to make sure I got something off. Fortunately, I did. I couldn’t believe that it happened, and with the whistle blowing seconds later, it’s unbelievable. I can’t really describe it.”

It was a shining moment of redemption for Pressley, the former Seminole defender who signed with the Flash well after pre-season, lost her starting job after a shaky performance against Boston and had seemingly curled up in Lines’ doghouse.

“[It was] probably the biggest goal of my life, yes,” a giddy Pressley noted after the match.

2) No fall for McCall: When McCall Zerboni was arrested for a DUI in Oct. 2011, it was tough to envision her returning as Aaran Lines’ trusted midfield spark-plug, the constantly optimistic heart-and-soul of the Flash. Reading through her interview with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s Jeff DiVeronica, Zerboni went to extreme lengths to understand the gravity of her mistake without letting her legal matters disrupt a future so bright that the national team could come calling. 

“This was one of the hardest years of my life, and for [the championship] to come through right now, and for us to battle through hell numerous times, and for my teammates to step up to do it for me and for me to do it for them, it is just the sweetest thing. It’s the sweetest day in history right now,” an exhausted but ecstatic Zerboni said after the win over Chicago.

Instead of returning home to balmy California for her off-season, Zerboni stuck around in Buffalo, coaching youth at Sahlen’s SportsPark and training daily with Aaran Lines, Alex Sahlen and the Flash staff. The UCLA alum’s fitness was tested throughout the year—Lines had little interest in subbing her—but that commitment paid off in the final as Zerboni sped around the pitch for 120 minutes, cutting out Chicago attacks with well-timed tackles while acting as a catalyst of the WNY offense.

“A champion is made behind closed doors, and I’ve been working for 365 days since the last championship that I won that nobody sees,” Zerboni concluded. “I’ve battled off the field through a lot of things, I’ve battled on the field working on training and technique, and today’s a tribute to all the hard work myself and my teammates put together this off-season.”

3) What’s next for Aaran Lines?: Prominent women’s soccer site All White Kit raised a telling question on Twitter last Sunday: what more does Lines have to accomplish before he’s considered for the U.S. Women’s National Team job as the successor to Pia Sundhage? The head coach boasts three consecutive titles with three considerably different teams, helping lure and unite superstars in 2011 before quickly molding a youthful team in 2012.

Under Lines’ tutelage, potential WPSL Elite Rookie of the Year Katy Frierson advanced from inconsistent technical wonder to reliable lynchpin of the WNY attack—in three months. Western New York was by no means deep in terms of personnel, but it was two little-used substitutes, Laura Heyboer and Jodi-Ann Robinson, that kept the team’s playoff hopes alive against New York. Demanding production from an entire squad—not just the stars or the starting XI—is the mark of an elite coach. 

4) Unsung heroes: The Flash had plenty of players who fit this category to a “T.” Captain Zerboni and leading-scorer Adriana captured most of the media attention surrounding the team—often deservedly so—but contributors like Angela Salem, the tireless defensive midfielder who struck the winning PK against Chicago, and veteran outside back Alex Sahlen were key ingredients to the championship run.

Salem, in truth, plays a very similar game to Zerboni—she’s smart in her turns, looks to switch the field frequently and offsets her lack of strength with pesky, relentless defense. Sahlen, who doubled as Flash team president, was forced to adjust from right fullback to left mid-season, a steep challenge.

Finally, it was Emily Van Egmond, the 19-year-old Australian international left out of Lines’ XI for much of the season, who raised her hand to take one of the five PKs against Chicago. Lines admitted that he’d made up his mind about four shooters—Zerboni, Adriana, Salem and Katherine Reynolds—but left the final spot open to a volunteer. The youngest player on the team stepped up willingly, then buried her PK with the poise of a player a decade older.

5) Closing notes: Several other major themes deserve mention: the steadiness of Championship MVP Nikki Marshall and Reynolds in the back, the confidence of goalie Brittany Cameron to forget an early match miscue and stop a PK, the pre-Olympic cameos of Lori Lindsey and Meghan Klingenberg and the impeccable fitness program of Demeris Johnson, who ensured that the Flash wouldn’t falter from fatigue late in matches.

The third storybook year for the Western New York Flash has drawn to a close, and given the uncertain future of women’s professional soccer in the U.S., any championship is meant to be treasured.

(Photos provided by Western New York Flash).

TAGGED: aaran lines, chicago red stars, mccall zerboni, western new york flash, wny flash, women's soccer, wpsl elite

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