When Yukon Junior Strikers coach Grant Zazula proposed taking a team of mostly seven-year-olds to a tournament in North Vancouver, he was met with skepticism.
“I approached the Yukon Soccer Association and said, ‘There’s a tournament in North Vancouver in the winter and I’d really like to take a group of seven-year-olds,’ and they sort of looked at me like I had two heads,” said Zazula.
Turns out, it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
The Strikers went undefeated to win gold in the U8 division at the 29th annual Indoor Soccer Tournament, hosted by the North Shore Youth Soccer Association, over the weekend.
“We really didn’t have any expectations going down,” said Zazula. “You give them the pep talk and say you’ll be proud of them regardless if they win or not. And you come out and kind of dominate the tournament, you leave pretty excited – surprised, actually. It was a pretty fantastic tournament for the kids.”
The U8 Strikers team, which has one six-year-old, Kara McLean, and one eight-year-old, Zaphaniah Giam, were playing in their first tournament together and was the only co-ed squad in the division.
Not only did the undefeated streak show it was worth the trip, it validated the Strikers program for kids so young, said Zazula, who is president of Whitehorse Minor Soccer.
“These are all kids from the Junior Strikers program we started, I think, in the summer of 2014,” said Zazula. “It’s the first time Yukon Soccer provided a program for kids that age. It recognizes that it’s good to start them off at that age, get them into proper training. Obviously it’s paid off.”
“This is a group of kids I’m certain will go far in soccer,” he added. “If you can get them playing in this kind level and this kind of competition early on, it gets them in that mindset that they can build on something.”
The Strikers clinched gold with a hard-fought 1-0 win over the North Shore Rangers, who also arrived in the final undefeated. Strikers’ Cameron Bringsli scored the match’s one goal in the first half before the team battened down the hatches in defensive play.
“At this age kids just want to go forward and score goals like crazy and we really tried to play team defence and coverage,” said Zazula. “So once we scored our goal we made sure the kids were focused on covering the opposition and defence. It’s pretty awesome for kids that age to be disciplined in order to play proper defence.”
The Strikers opened the tournament with an 8-0 win over North Shore Real Madrid and went on to beat the North Shore Barcelona 3-1, North Shore Hull City 3-0, Coquitlam Metro-Ford SC Timbers 1-0 before a 1-1 tie with North Shore L.A. Galaxy.
Bringsli led the team in scoring with seven goals while teammates Giam, Leah McLean, Roman Zazula, Samuel Watson and Andrzej Benson also scored.
“Cameron is technically one of the best players around and he probably scored more goals in the tournament than any other kid on all the teams,” said Zazula. “He can kick the ball as hard as an adult and he just blew it straight past the goalkeeper (in the final).”
In additition to scoring goals, Benson and Watson prevented a bunch, often diving into harm’s way as goalkeepers.
“They rotated halfs and they’re both great players to have,” said Zazula. “I was so impressed by how they were willing to throw themselves in front of the ball. They did an exceptional job.
“The thing I noticed most in the tournament is they played with such intensity and I had never seen that before with these kids.”
Brody Nash, Malcolm Murchison and Lachlan Wood provided the Strikers with “hard-nosed defence,” added Zazula.
The U8s were one of three Junior Strikers teams at the tournament. The U9 Strikers were held to one win and the U11s came away winless.
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