By Dominic Scianna
Just three teams remained in the CPS SCORE! Girl’s Elementary Soccer Championships that took place on May 31 at Taft High School. Ebinger Elementary, a winner on May 23 in a semi-final clash with Azuela Elementary, awaited the winner of Burr and Alcott elementary schools to decide its opponent in the title game to determine the 2023 champion.
It was the Alcott Wildcats prevailing in the end, winning two games in a row, upending Burr 8-0 in the semifinals and Ebinger 2-1 in the title game to take home the championship.
Head coach Spero Kopitas knew his Alcott squad would need to dig deep and use his entire 12-player roster to achieve its ultimate goal to bring home the Wildcats’ first-ever CPS SCORE! championship trophy.
In the semifinal, the Wildcats raced to a 5-0 halftime lead and never looked back.
The team had no time to celebrate as the championship contest would begin against Ebinger 20 minutes later after a brief warmup and concerns that a late rain shower may be in the forecast.
“My concern was the girls having enough energy for the second game,” Kopitas said. “Lila (Massey) had a remarkable first game but I moved her to the backline for the championship game because she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t catch her breath.”
Enter eighth-grader Fiona Szajda, who stepped in to replace Massey joining the Izaguirre sisters on the front line for Alcott to start game two with the title on the line.
Ebinger started fast and had fresher legs to start the title game. The Eagles would break through in the first half for the games opening tally, an unassisted goal by Juliette Popelka to take an early 1-0 lead.
“It motivated our team (that first goal) and I really thought we had a good chance of winning,” said Popelka. “I’m just glad I had the opportunity to play with this team and get this far.”
Just before halftime, Alcott caught a break when Ebinger turned the ball over in its own zone and Alexa Izaguirre bounced on the miscue and scored to tie the game at 1-1.
“We tried to save all of our energy (playing both games back to back) and leave it all out on the field – and that’s what we did,” said Alexa.
The game see-sawed back and forth in the second half and it all came down to the final 15 minutes withthe potential of overtime and penalty kicks looming.
That’s when Kopitas’ pregame move paid dividends as an alert Szajda scampered down the right side with the ball on her foot and drove her shot past the Eagles’ goalie for a 2-1 lead with 12:14 left to play in the game.
But the game wasn’t over yet.
One last chance for Ebinger with under 5 minutes to play saw a wild scramble in front of Alcott goalie Olivia Mitchell with bodies surrounding the front of the net. But Alcott would somehow work to clear the ball free and out of danger.
The one-goal lead would hold up and Alcott’s wild celebration would ensue and spill over to their fans and parents in the stands as the clock ran out.
“My goal was all thanks to Xochi. She made a crazy run down the side and crossed a pass to me and I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” said Szajda. “I took a touch and shot it towards the far post and it went in.”
For Ebinger, it was a tough loss to take but coach Anthony Popelka put the hard fought game into perspective as the two best teams battled to the end.
“It was a great game. Two evenly-matched teams and Alcott came out on top and deserved it. The game could have gone either way and I’m proud of how we played and put our hearts into it,” he said.
The Taft High School field was the perfect setting for the finals and the games went off without a hitch – and that fact was not lost on Kopitas as he reflected on a successfully run CPS SCORE! soccer campaign and his team’s journey to close out the year.
“What a wonderful league (CPS SCORE!) and a wonderful season it turned out to be,” admitted Kopitas.