TULSA — Down 3-1 with 20 minutes to play in a playoff game, the Tulsa Soccer Club Hurricane U15 came to the sideline for a quick water break.
The water flowed first. But then, something else filled the boys.
“Let’s go! One, two, three — Lizzie Strong!”
It was the spirit of Lizzie Edwards, one of the TSC Hurricane girls killed two years ago in a car crash on I-35 south of Oklahoma City. Lizzie had an infectious smile and a sweet personality, but she was also a fierce friend.
The boys have remained inspired by her memory. They were inspired when they scored two goals in the final 20 minutes to tie that team from Virginia and advance. They were similarly inspired the next game, when they found themselves down again 3-1, this time to a team from New Jersey — again, at the 20-minute water break — and then scored three goals to win 4-3.
That victory on July 1 preceded a 3-1 win over an Atlanta squad in the playoff finals and propelled them to the ECNL/ENPL championship last week in Denver, where they won four games in five days — 3-2, 2-1, 2-1 and 3-1 — to defend their 2018 national championship.
The TSC Hurricane 97 girls won the first national championship in state history in 2013 when they won the Elite Clubs National League’s North American League championship in Virginia. Then TSC Hurricane 04 last year became the first boys team from Oklahoma to win a national title by winning the ECNL/Elite National Premier League crown — and now they’ve done it twice.
“First and foremost, I have talented players,” said coach Cristian Porto. “But I think what separates us, and this may sound cliché, but we have a great team spirit — a refuse-to-lose mentality.”
That indomitable team spirit is rooted in the players’ friendship with Lizzie Edwards.
She was 13 when she, 11-year-old Beck Kitterman and 10-year-old Zach Van Horn were killed in a summertime crash heading home from Turner Falls. Erin Van Horn, 40, was also killed when her SUV rear-ended an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig. Three other children were in the vehicle: Izzy Kitterman and Lauren Van Horn were seriously injured, and Sam Van Horn received hospital treatment and was released.
The TSC Hurricane community has been picking up the pieces ever since, but along the way, they’ve lifted up — and been lifted by — those who were lost.
“It chokes me up a little bit,” Porto said. “She has a connection with these kids. Somehow. Something about her spirit, when you mention Lizzie, you can see their faces change. It just changes.”
Porto’s squad won four games in five days in Denver to finish off another national championship, including another comeback rally and an upset victory in the finals over a team from Chicago.
Porto said Lizzie’s dad, Eric Edwards, texted him before the finals that he dreamed his daughter had guest-played with the boys and that they won 3-1.
The final score of the championship game was 3-1. Dream or no dream, Lizzie was there.
Porto, who also previously coached Lizzie’s older brother Will, has been with TSC Hurricane for five years and has led this squad for two seasons.
“With them winning, I guess I get a lot of credit, but more credit goes to the previous coaches,” Porto said. “Mike Umelo, he developed this team culture and I just came in and piggybacked it. Another coach, Cory Riggs, was helping Mike. They’re the ones that set the standards.
“We also have a great group of parents. Our club has been super supportive. Youth soccer is expensive. It’s not cheap. Our parents do what they can, they fundraise, they invest time, invest energy, take time off work, they help each other out — if one can’t go, they take that player, or we have a team van one parent will drive. … That enables the kid ultimately to know, ‘Hey, your job is to perform on the field and we’ll take care of the rest.’ ”
Porto grew up in Brazil but moved to Tulsa when he was 14 after his father’s company relocated the family. Like many of his players, he went to school in Jenks. He played for the now-defunct Tulsa Thunder, played collegiately at the University of Dayton, and then got into coaching about 12 years ago.
Changing hemispheres as a teenager “was tough,” he said. “Because I could understand the language, but I couldn’t really speak it. Oklahoma is not — especially back then in ‘94-95 — was not the most diverse place. … Everyone looked at you kind of like an alien, or made fun of way you talk and stuff like that. But soccer really helped me out. I was a pretty good player and I immediately had friends. The rest is history.”
Porto said this team has plenty of talented players — most are going into their sophomore year, and many are already being recruited by college programs — but also possesses certain intangible qualities that he says are unique for boys in this age group.
“They know, especially as they get to the upper echelons of competition, they know they’ve got to outwork the other team,” Porto said. “I’ve been coaching them two years but they’ve been together six or seven years and they’ve been competing together at a high level.
“Those experiences competing together when they were younger, that not only gave them game experience, but it also helped them with the team bonding aspect. These kids are best friends, they’re brothers, they hang out with each other, and I think all that, you can see it on the field. It’s a sacrifice. It’s an unselfishness. Somebody gets injured, somebody steps up. Somebody gets tired, another person steps up. It’s just a next-man-up type of attitude.
“And they hold each other accountable as well. Which, at the age of 15, you don’t see that very often, players holding each other accountable. Obviously as a coach, I hold them accountable. But when the players are doing it, you know, when a player is being tough on another player, it means more to that player than when the coach is doing it. … The players doing it not only in games but in practices ultimately makes them who they are today.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.