December 19, 2013

Facing The Giants

Finally, we have broken through!  After fighting for many years, the Suba Lakers defeated our “Giants” and brought a big trophy back to Mbita!  Perhaps not large in size, but huge in prestige! 

Even before the Suba Lakers Club officially began in 2009, we had been taking some of the best girls from around Mbita and competing in tournaments in Kisumu (2.5 hrs from Mbita and our nearest city).  Back then, the top teams would normally beat us 5-0 or even 8-0.  Our young girls were all in primary school back then and they were learning and growing by facing the strong competition.  The top teams like Galactico and Kisumu Youth Olympic Club (KYOC) had players who were in their late teens and twenties, some of them even played for the National team of Kenya.  Our young girls never gave up through the challenges and disappointments, and we never gave up on them.  For the past six years we have stuck with them, training on a regular basis and competing in various tournaments.  There were even a few times we managed to lose to those top teams 1-0 or 2-1 and once we even played to a draw, but we had never defeated them.  Until now!

Kisumu Sports Ground
It’s not as if we haven’t been successful in those years.  We have won several tournaments including SEP in Oyugis, KYFA Under 14, Coca Cola, Sakata, AMUT and the Constituency Championship.  Even in the tournaments with those big teams, we competed well and had even defeated the Galactico Junior team to win one championship.  But we never had a breakthrough against their best players.

In December we headed to the Human Rights Tournament sponsored by KYOC.  Fortunately for us, both KYOC and Galactico were not in our preliminary group.  They were forced to battle it out in their group because only the winners of the two groups would advance to the finals.  Our group was definitely the easier group, though it was not a cake-walk.  We played the Eaglets of Shaurimoyo first.  Though we dominated the match, we only managed a single goal in the dying minutes of the first half.  It was a great left-footed shot from outside the box by Emily Auma. 

Since there was only two other teams in our group, winning the first match put us in a great position to be able to top the group.  The Eaglets played the other team, Kasagam, before our final group match.  Kasagam was also leading the Eaglets 1-0 in the dying minutes.  We were hoping Kasagam wouldn’t score another goal, otherwise they would hold the tiebreaker over us if we drew our final game with them.  When they got a late penalty kick awarded to them, our hopes were dying.  Fortunately for us, they missed the penalty and the game ended 1-0.  Coach Joe told our other coaches, that the penalty kick they missed might be the one that puts us into the finals.

In our final group match against Kasagam, our girls were a little overconfident. They thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t!  Kasagam played with more aggressiveness and heart in the first half and took it to our girls.  After half-time our girls woke up and began playing up to their potential.  Neither team managed to score though there were some chances on both sides.  Since the two teams were tied in every way (thanks to their missed penalty kick in the previous game), the organizers decided to go for penalty kicks instead of a coin flip. 

In the penalty shoot-out, three of our first four kickers scored (Emily, Dorothy and Jenty), and our 7th grade goal-keeper, Lillian Awuor blocked the first two kicks from Kasagam.  It was over even before our 5th kick, and we were headed to the finals to face KYOC who had eliminated Galactico in their group. 

On Monday we had a great training day in preparation for the finals.  We had two good practice sessions and in the afternoon we showed the girls the movie “Facing the Giants.”  Our Giants (Galactico and KYOC) had been tormenting us for many years and some didn’t think we would ever get past them.  The movie helped the girls learn that with God, anything is possible and it helped them believe in themselves and have the right attitude heading into the finals. 
Never give up. Never back down.  Never lose faith.

There seemed to be something different this time around.  There was a quiet confidence among the girls and the coaches.  As I looked over the team, I could see 16 of the 18 girls had been with us for at least 4 years.  They had taken their lumps at times, but had continued working hard to improve.  They had been identified at early ages (usually in 6th-7th grade) and been trained to play football the right way.  With all of the time they have spent together, they are more like sisters than teammates.    

KYOC was heavily favored against us in the finals.  They had multiple players who are among the best in the country, playing for the National team.  They were more experienced with most of their players in their twenties and having played for many years in big matches.  On top of it all, they were playing at their home ground in front of their home fans which had packed the sportsground on a holiday afternoon.  The odds were stacked against us.    

Our girls were not deterred.  From the first kick, it was clear that this was going to be a tough physical match.  Leah Awuor made a hard tackle on their best player in the opening minutes and our striker Jenty aggressively put pressure on their back-line and goalkeeper, never giving up on the balls in the box.

Each team had chances to score.  We hit the post twice and even hit the back of the net, but it was negated by an off-sides call.  As the match wore on, our girls gained even more confidence.  The match ended in a 0-0 draw so it meant the championship would be decided on post-match penalty kicks.  Again they were much favored with their seasoned veterans including a goalkeeper who is known for being great against penalty kicks.  A little different than our 7th grade goalkeeper who no one knew!
Lillian training hard...always!
This time our first 4 shooters scored (Emily, Dorothy, Lavenda and Jenty).  Once again our goalkeeper, Lillian Awuor blocked 2 of the first 3 shots providing us with the victory 4-1.  After the winning kick by Jenty, the players sprinted to the corner flag for a celebration in which they were joined by Coach Joe.  It was a jubilant celebration that befitted a team slaying it’s Giant! 

Watch this video of the winning penalty kick and celebration!  

Celebrating with ice cream!
As the winners, we received a nice trophy, as well as sh. 25,000 in cash (~$290USD).  The prize money was divided up between the players and coaches.  Each player took their sh. 1,000 (about $12) and bought a few items of clothing in the market, a little food to bring home, and brought the rest of the cash to their parents and guardians so that they could have a Merry Christmas!   
Our coaches and players learned much from this whole experience.  Our “rural” girls from the “bush” have come a long way in the past 6 years and can compete with any team if they play their best.  We learned that “big names” and a great resume don’t win championships, but instead it is hard work, determination and teamwork.  Finally, we learned that with God, all things are possible, even slaying a Giant!
The Dream Team


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