It was a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit when the Magnolia Monkeys landed in Orlando, Fla., for the World Championship Kick-It 3-On-3 Soccer Shoot-Out hosted by Sports Illustrated for Kids.
The team, made up of Magnolia residents Sam Kopf, Ryan Orr, Wyatt Paul, Johnny Ochsner, Daniel Merz and Alex Larsen-all 9 years old-arrived with their families a few days before the tournament began. The team's coaches, Paul Merz and Daniel Larsen, wanted to give their players some time to acclimate to the exotic environment, as well as the opportunity to monkey around at Disney World.
But the fickle Florida climate had other plans. The night before the tournament began, a storm front moved in. The temperature dropped to 50 degrees, accompanied by wind gusts up to 35 miles per hour.
"We were prepared for the cold," coach Merz said, "but not the wind. Talk about one of those hard-learned lessons. No matter how prepared you are for a game, there are certain things that are just out of your hands.
"You can't control the referees," he added, "and you certainly can't control the weather."
In a way, the howling wind fit right in with the team's short history of unpredictable upsets. Extreme climatic conditions of another kind accompanied the Monkey's first outing during the regional Kick-It tournament last August. Under the sweltering summer sun, they competed against and defeated teams made up of older, bigger boys, and in so doing they qualified for a shot at the world championship in Orlando.
The team was formed on a whim only days before the tournament after Isabelle Ochsner, Johnny's mother, heard the event mentioned on the radio. She and other interested parents brought together a group of boys from Magnolia's youth soccer teams and, wearing mismatched red t-shirts, the newly christened Monkeys took the field against fully uniformed teams who had been playing together for years.
Considering this, as well as the ways in which Kick-It differs from standard soccer, their regional victory was a testament not only to the team's skill and sportsmanship but also to their resilience and adaptability.
Kick-It soccer is played with three-person teams on a field smaller than a regulation soccer field. The games are shorter (two 12-minute halves), faster and, due especially to the absence of goalies, higher scoring. Most Kick-It teams are made up of five players, so the Monkey's six-man roster forced the team's coaches to get creative with player substitutions during games.
"In Orlando, we ended up making more substitutions in the second half than the coaches of the other teams we were playing," Merz said. "That gave all the boys a fair chance at getting enough time on the field, and also ensured that no one got too tired."
The tournament took place over three days, beginning Saturday, Jan. 14, and ending on Jan. 16. Hosted by Disney's Wide World of Sports complex-a multi-use facility used by the Atlanta Braves for spring training-the Kick-It competition drew nearly a thousand teams from all over the nation. There were both male and female divisions, with age brackets ranging from 6-year-olds to adults.
"We were glad that the team finally had a chance to compete against other players their own age," Merz said. "But we also didn't really know what to expect. We did pretty well against the older teams in the qualifying tournament, but those games didn't provide a good measuring stick as to how the boys would do against their peers from around the country."
As it turned out, the Monkeys performed well. They played three games on Saturday, two of which were against some of the top-ranked teams in their age bracket. The competition was stiff, but they held their own, winning their first game 4-3, losing their second game 6-5 by a single last-minute goal, and tying their third game at 3-3.
"It was fun to beat the first team we played down there," Wyatt Paul said. "It was a really good way to start things off."
Merz said that the blustery weather conditions played a role in the first day's two near misses. "We were ahead until close to the end of the second game, but then the wind really started howling. We caught a couple of bad bounces and ended up losing ground. That's just the way it goes sometimes," he added.
"I wish it had rained instead," Johnny Ochsner said. "We know how to play in the rain."
The Monkeys were slotted to have a rematch on Sunday against Jacob's Heroes, the team they tied, as both teams had the same record of 1-1-1. However, a schedule change was made to accommodate another team joining the competition at the last minute. Instead of a head-to-head tie-breaker, the fate of the Monkeys and the Heroes was to be decided instead by the goal differential between the two teams-whoever had scored the highest total cumulative goals after the first game on Sunday would advance to the next round.
On Sunday morning, the Monkeys were ahead by a single goal.
Both teams faced off against the same opponent on Sunday, and both teams emerged victorious. But while the Monkeys won 5-1, the Heroes came out on top by a score of 7-1, thereby beating out the Monkeys by a single, heartbreaking goal.
Even though both teams still had the same record, the Heroes ended up advancing into the next round of elimination, while the Monkeys went on to play in the consolation round later that afternoon. A win at this level of competition would still allow their continued participation in the tournament.
"The kids played a real good game," Merz said. "We were ahead until the very end, but they came back and tied us."
A tie in this round of play led to the "golden goal," a kind of sudden-death elimination. The opposing team was able to steal the ball and score a lucky goal from midfield, instantly eliminating the Monkeys from the tournament. It was a painful loss.
"It was heartbreaking for them," Merz said. "They'd given so much and come so close, and everything just ended so fast."
Paul, however, maintains a philosophical perspective on the experience. "Jacob's Heroes ended up winning second place in the World Championship, and FC Copa [the team we lost to on Saturday], took fifth. So I think we played really well against them.
"We maybe could have beaten them if things were just a bit different," he added.
"When people found out that our team had only been together since the week of their qualifying tournament last year, they were shocked," Merz said.
"They really came together as a team and learned to work together," he added. "It was fun to watch. Playing in Orlando was a tremendous experience just to see what our possibilities were for the future. We'd like to do it again next summer."
Merz said he hopes to see other Kick-It teams, both boys and girls, formed in Magnolia this year. "It'd be great to see our neighbors get a chance at enjoying the kind of wonderful experience that we've had," he said.
Sean Molnar is a freelance writer and deejay living in Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]