The San Diego SeaLions turned in a perfect season — 12-0-2 — after claiming the rights to their second Women’s Premier Soccer League title in 13 years by defeating a pair of Texas teams at last weekend’s WPSL Final Four in Sacramento.
The SeaLions defeated the defending WPSL national champion Gulf Coast Texas in a kicks-from-the-mark tiebreaker (10-9 in kicks) in the semifinals on Saturday before applying the final touches to their perfect season with a 2-1 victory against the Houston Aces.
All games were played at Elk Grove High School.
The SeaLions’ South County connections include head coach Jen Lalor-Nielsen and midfielder Elie Magracia, both Bonita Vista High School graduates.
The team played its final two regular season games at Mater Dei Catholic High School in eastern Chula Vista before emabarking on its championship post-season run.
Defender Sarah Devine scored three key goals for the SeaLions in the two matches, including the game-winner late in the final.
"There were so many moments that were unbelievable and awe-inspiring," Lalor-Nielsen stated in a team release. "Over the last two weekends this team kept believing and never gave up.
“I have absolutely loved watching them play and coaching them this season. This team plays the game with thought, purpose and passion. Watching them succeed in dramatic fashion in the semi-final and final game was very special and beautiful to witness. This team from day one always believed, and worked extremely hard for one another.
“This accomplishment was four years in the making. These girls have been committed and dedicated to making this happen. They have inspired so many people with their passionate play and unbelievable drive to succeed. They are all true champions in every sense of the word!"
It took a heroic effort on the part of the SeaLions — the Pacific-South regular season champions and western regional champions — to win both games last weekend.
The semifinal game against the Texans was tied nil-nil at the end of regulation, and remained scoreless through the first 15-minute overtime period. Gulf Coast scored in the 117th minute on a shot from Chelsey Williams and it seemed as if that goal might drop the San Diegans short of their quest — the national championship — for a third consecutive year.
But with seconds to play in the second OT period, the SeaLions’ patience working with the ball paid off as Devine got a header on a ball sent into the box and redirected it into the back of the net for the equalizer.
"Jen put me (up) as a forward because she could sense my energy and desire to win," Devine stated in a team release. "The fact that I was able to find the ball in the jumble of players and direct it back toward the net blows my mind."
The match then proceeded to the KFM tiebreaker. It proved to be a marathon affair — after 20 shots from the penalty dot by both teams, the score still remained knotted.
The ultimate tiebreaker came down to a match-up of goalkeepers.
SeaLions ’keeper Kaycee Gunion stepped up and rocketed her shot past Gulf Coast's Sarah Story. Gunion then traded places with Story, who sent her shot straight down the center. Gunion dove to her right, but was able to block the shot with her leg, clinching the SeaLions a spot in the championship match the following day.
Houston, a second-year entry in the WPSL with paid professionals on its roster and likewise undefeated in conference play, defeated the New England Mutiny, 4-1, in the opening semi-final of the tournament to draw the finals assignment against the SeaLions.
The SeaLions came out determined in the championship match, setting the early tempo, though the Aces were the first to score as Jackie Acevedo, Houston’s leading scorer, slipped the ball around Gunion, who had come off her line in an attempt to block the shot, at the 15-minute mark.
San Diego’s persistence was rewarded in stoppage time at the end of the first half when Alex Webber was taken down in the penalty box and the SeaLions were awarded a penalty kick. Midfielder Rosie Tantillo buried her shot past Aces ’keeper Catherine Fitzsimmons to even the score at 1-1.
Early in the second half, Jessica Wi blocked a shot with her chest to keep the ball, that had evaded Gunion’s outstretched reach, out of the San Diego net.
As time ticked down, it appeared as if the SeaLions were headed toward their third consecutive overtime match (San Diego had defeated the Storm Elk Grove, 2-1, in overtime on a pair of goals by Magracia in the preceding week’s regional championship game.)
Fortunes turned in the SeaLions’ favor with two minutes remaining in regulation play when the Californians were awarded a free kick near the right sideline near the 18-yard box. San Diego forward Nikki Petracca played a high ball into the box and the ball found the head of Devine for the game-winning goal.
"Nikki and I have known each other since we were 15 years old, and she knows that when I am in the box, I love the floating balls right inside the six,” Devine stated. “She could not have hit it any better, and it was so easy for me to get up and find the back of the net again.
“I have never won a national title in all my years of playing soccer. Being able to win this game for our incredible staff means the world to me. They have had my back since the beginning. I think this team is successful because of how much we all want to be playing soccer. We don't get salaries, and we don't get recognition anywhere but in our locker room.”
Hard work and dedication provided its own reward — one with a shiny gleam.
"Words can't even begin to express how much this win means to me, and to everyone who is a part of this organization," SeaLions midfielder Judy Christopher stated in a team release. "It's something we have been working for the past four years, and the feeling of attaining a goal that you have been working so hard for is the greatest feeling in the world.
“These girls are not just my teammates they are my family. None of this would have been possible without the bond between the players and the staff. I love this team and this organization, and I can't imagine winning this without any of them."
SeaLions president, assistant coach and former netminder Lu Snyder was a part of the SeaLions’ WPSL championship team in 2000, though this was her first time receiving the honor as a coach.
Snyder termed the SeaLions’ 2013 WPSL title “very special" in a team release.
"This team is very special,” Snyder stated. “I have never been involved with a team that would fight to the very last second of the game like we did. We didn't do that just once, we did it three times. From our fans to our players and staff, we all believed, trusted and fought for each other, and those are the true signs of what champions are made of."
For more information, visit www.sealionsoccer.com.