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South County connection lifts SeaLions to 3-1 win over unbeaten Storm Phillip Brents | Fri, Jul 12 2013 12:55 AM

Elie Magracia and Jen Lalor-Nielsen have much in common beyond the simple player-coach relationship for the San Diego SeaLions of the Womens Premier Soccer League.

Lalor-Nielsen is the world-class veteran, having played in the 1995 Women’s World Cup for the United States. She was nominated for entry into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2012.

Magracia is the young “pup” on the team, having graduated last year from the University of San Diego.

Their connection can be traced to one man: Ron Pietila.

And to one school: Bonita Vista High School.

“It seemed like every year back then Bonita was always either in the CIF final or at least in the semifinals,” reminisced Lalor-Nielsen, a 1992 BVHS graduate.

The Barons did indeed enjoy quite a run, with Pietila — otherwise known as the godfather of soccer in San Diego County — having led BVHS to division championship games in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999 and 2000.

Bonita Vista earned co-championship titles in 1987 and 1996 by virtue of a 1-1 draw against Valhalla in 1987 and a scoreless tie against San Dieguito in 1996.

The Barons dropped a 1-0 decision to Torrey Pines during Lalor’s trip to the 1990 CIF finals.

Magracia helped Bonita Vista to two league titles during her stay at the school before going on to help the Toreros each new heights.

“What I remember most about Coach Pie are two things: his passion for the game and one thing he always made a point of saying, which was to keep your head on a swivel, to keep turning your head, that your neck should be sore after a game.”

Magracia seconded the latter attribute.

As for Pietila? He’s very pleased with the career paths both of his former pupils have taken.

“I have many former players and assistants coaching around the county (and) I am proud of each of them,” said Pietila, who is now retired from teaching but remains as the director of the Barons Soccer Tournament, the state’s largest high school girls soccer-specific tournament. 

“Jen and Elie were very similar in that they both scored big goals in big games and had a tremendous work ethic,” Pietila continued. “They both worked very hard on their own and both played tall on the field despite their somewhat small stature.”

Lalor-Nielsen played for Pietila in the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons before choosing not to play her final two seasons in high school (instead playing for the Los Angeles-based Southern California Blues) to pursue a better chance at obtaining the type of scholarship, at the college level, that she had in mind.

"It worked out well for her as she became an All-American at Santa Clara University, and Kristen Nicita became an All-CIF midfielder in Jen's place for the Barons," Pietila said. "Jen was also an All-CIF performer. No one doubted Jen's skills and determination as she was moving along in the soccer world. However, I was concerned that her diminutive size would hold her back at the highest levels. She became a genius at compensating for her size by doing only those tasks of which she was capable. For example, Jen would not challenge a player that was a half-foot taller than she. Rather she would strip the ball after it was collected.”

Lalor-Nielsen helped Team USA to a bronze medal at the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden. Prior to joining the U.S. national team, she had to make a fateful decision.

“Did I want to continue playing high school or women’s soccer?” she said.

Lalor-Nielsen starred on the pitch her freshman and sophomore years at BVHS, but she had set her goals high. In order to realize them, she knew she had to be playing at a higher level at 16.

She elected to play with the Blues, a women’s club team in the Los Angeles area that necessitated long car rides with her parents to practices and games. She often did her school homework on those commutes.

“I think Coach Pie understood and it’s not like I left the school,” Lalor-Nielsen recalled. “I was still going to Bonita; I just wasn’t playing soccer there. And I still had Coach Pie as one of my teachers.”

After graduating from BVHS, Lalor-Nielsen attended Santa Clara University with teammate Sarah Barnett, helping the Broncos to two Final Four appearances. She led the nation in assists in both 1994 and 1996 and was a finalist for the Missouri Athletic Club Award and Hermann Trophy in 1993, 1994 and 1996.

She was a member of the U.S. national team player pool from 1987 to 1995, appearing at the U16, U19 and U20 levels before being called up to play with the senior women’s team in 1992. She returned to the U.S. national team player pool in 2001 and earned the honor as the first player to score a goal in the new Dragon Sports Stadium in Hangzhou, China, in January of that year.

Former U.S. national team head coach April Heinrichs called Lalor-Nielsen “one of the most technical gifted players” in the program’s history.

Following the 1995 Women’s World Cup, Lalor-Nielsen began playing professionally in Japan and Europe (that’s how she met her husband Bo Nielsen, a native of Denmark) before returning to the United States.

She was among the first picks by the New York Power in the Women’s United Soccer Association that grew out of America’s success in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She played two years with the Power before transferring to the hometown San Diego Spirit.

Alas, Lalor-Neilsen’s homecoming proved short-lived as the 2003 season proved to be the last for both the Spirit and the WUSA.

She ended her playing career with the SeaLions, helping the team to the WPSL finals in 2006, before taking over the coaching reins of the team. She was a member of the San Diego WFC WPSL championship team in 2000.

Besides her duties with the SeaLoins, the 1992 BVHS alumna currently serves as the head coach at Poway High School and an assistant coach at Miramar College.

Magracia graduated from BVHS in 2008 and spent four memory-packed years at USD, helping the Toreros to their first West Coast Conference championship in 2011 and a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals.

While finishing her degree in industrial and systems engineering, Magracia served as an undergraduate assistant coach at USD. She has now been hired as an assistant coach with the team. Among her duties is recruiting.

Magracia said the biggest jump from high school to college was the distraction element that comes with having more opportunities for social interaction with the campus community.

“When you’re going up playing soccer, that’s all you know,” she said. “But then add the distraction of having a social life that comes with college. I just needed to find consistency.”

Magracia was able to balance soccer and social life to a high level of success as a three-time All-WCC selection, freshman All-American and NSCAA All-West Region honorsee as a senior.

“We won WCC for the first time in school history by sharing the title with Pepperdine,” the BVHS grad said. “We made it to the quarterfinals. We beat UCLA, which was ranked second or third in the nation at that time. The quarterfinal game was against Long Beach State and it was played in the rain. It was a very slippery game but it as also a very memorable game.”

Because of their connection to BVHS, Lalor-Nielsen was well aware of Magracia’s accomplishments. “I’ve always wanted to have her on my team and things finally worked out,” the SeaLions coach said.

Lalor-Nielsen said she feels Magracia’s strength as a player is her deceptiveness on the pitch.

“Just when you think she’s going to do something, she does something completely different,” the SeaLions coach said. “She surprises you.”

Magracia said playing her first season in the WPSL has exceeded her expectations.

“Because you’re not practicing every day like in college, you quickly learn that every minute at practice counts and that every minute in a game counts,” she said. “It’s a different challenge. The girls who I’ve played with are tremendous. It’s exceeded my expectations.”

The SeaLions’ South County connection was furthered last Saturday when the team hosted the Storm Elk Grove in a WPSL inter-divisional match at Mater Dei Catholic High School.

The game served as an appropriate homecoming for both Magracia and her coach. During player introductions, Magracia received a noticeable spike in applause from the fans who attended the game.

“I’m absolutely thrilled — Chula Vista has a good fan base for soccer,” she said. “Playing here in high school was a fun time. Hopefully, we’ll have good fan support down here.”

The SeaLions will host L.A. Premier FC in their final home game of the regular season on Sunday, July 14, also at MDCHS. Prior to that, the team will play Beach FC at the Home Depot Center in Carson with a chance to sew up the Pacific-South championship and thus secure a berth in the WPSL regionals the following weekend in Northern California.

A tie or victory against Beach FC will hand the division title to the SeaLions.

The WPSL championships are slated July 26-27, also in Sacramento.

Best in the west
Saturday’s game was billed as a clash of the “best in the west,” as both the Pacific-North Division-leading Storm and the Pacific-South Division-leading SeaLions were both undefeated on the season.

Magracia earned honors as scoring the match-winning goal in the SeaLions’ 3-1 victory.

"This was an important game for us," Lalor-Nielsen said. "Both teams are poised to make the playoffs, and it is likely that we will face each other again. I'm glad we were able to come away with a win and gain some confidence heading into the post-season."

The victory against the Storm could serve as a catalyst for things to come. Both the WPSL regional playoffs and national championship tournaments are scheduled to be played in Sacramento the final two weekends in July.

Does the 2013 edition of the SeLions have what it takes to make a return to the WPSL’s Final Four?

“We had a good team in 2006,” Lalor-Nielsen said. “But, as a collective unit, the team has definitely evolved. I feel there’s more there. In 2006, we had a couple players from the WUSA. As a whole now, it’s hard to make our 20-man roster.”

Match replay
The SeaLions, boasting a 5-0-1 record (3-0-1 in Pacific South play), came out strong against the Pacific North-leading Storm (7-0-1).
The hosts gained a 1-0 advantage just eight minutes into the contest as the long legs of Jacquelin Witz chewed up territory during a run down the left side.

Witz opened enough space to center a pass to teammate Nikki Petracca, who then lofted an arcing shot that found space between the bottom of the crossbar and the outstretched gloves of the Storm goalkeeper.

Up 1-0, the SeaLions
controlled the run of play for the first 20 minutes of the half before the Storm began to gain momentum under the direction of Ghana national team member Elizabeth Cudjoe.

The fleet-footed Cudjoe managed to break through the SeaLions' back line to force San Diego ’keeper Kaycee Gunion to come up with a couple of huge saves. Also, just prior the end of the first half, SeaLions defender Grace Shevlin saved the ball off the line after a Storm cornerkick. 

At the start of the second half, Cudjoe was able to get the ball behind the SeaLions' defense once again, this time for an even better chance to notch the equalizewr. But Gunion came up with an unbelievable save on the one-on-one challenge.

In the 52nd minute, Petracca’s cornerkick found the head of Magracia on the near post. Magracia redirected the ball into the back of the net to give the SeaLions a 2-0 lead.  
In the 59th minute, the SeaLions made it 3-nil as defender Danielle Ross intercepted a pass at the mid-line and found a seam in the Storm defense, sending a through-ball to an onrushing Petracca, who bent a shot into the left side of the net.

Storm midfielder Samantha Brand scored on a far post shot in the 90th minute for the only goal of the game for the Storm.

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