Shawn Hewitt, coach of St. Louis Scott Gallagher’s first-year team in United Women’s Soccer, honestly didn’t know what to expect of the summer season.
“Going in, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. There were a lot of unknowns,” Hewitt recalled. “We didn’t know much about the league and we didn’t know how many players were back in town and if they’d be interested. After that, the concern was bringing the team together because our players at that level had grown up playing against one another on our Illinois and Missouri teams.
“We knew we had some talent to work with, but we didn’t know much about the competition and we weren’t sure how quickly our group would be able to come together.”
The first-year area squad proved to be an overwhelming success. After losing 1-0 on the road to the KC Courage in the season opener, SLSG went 5-0-2 through the rest of the regular season to win the league’s Central Conference. Then, in Chicago, the locals posted a 2-0 upset win over the previously unbeaten Chicago Mustangs, the Midwest North champion, in the opening round of the playoffs.
“I guess you could call me the general manager because I helped get things set up for Shawn and the coaching staff,” said Scott McDoniel, the SLSG Girls Program Director. “I was there in Chicago and saw our girls come up with a special effort to beat a high-quality opponent. Shawn and his coaches did an outstanding job of bringing together outstanding players from both sides of the river and putting together an excellent team. And the players, they showed tremendous grit and heart; they gave us everything they had to give.”
McDoniel added: “We can’t wait until next summer.”
In the Midwest Conference final, a shorthanded SLSG squad fell 3-1 to Midwest United FC (11-0-1) of Michigan. SLSG played the game without a pair of starters who ran into travel difficulties and had just one reserve available for the game.
“Finding out that two of our veteran players couldn’t make it was a definitely a shock,” SLSG midfield leader Syd Stephens recalled. “But we still had a game to play and that’s what we did. We obviously didn’t get the result, but we played that game with passion and courage and a lot of heart.”
Stephens added: “Having it end the way it did definitely left us with a salty taste in our mouths. I think the sky’s the limit for this team next summer.”
The UWS National Championship will be played this weekend in Round Rock, Texas. Semifinal matches feature Midwest United against Connecticut Fusion and San Antonio Athenians versus Santa Clara Blue Heat. The title match will be played Sunday.
Hewitt was joined on the SLSG coaching staff for the UWS season by Kelsey Dinges, Kindra Lierz, Jarius Holmes and Haylye Markway. Lead performance trainer Nick Bonacker also helped the squad greatly.
“We trained at 7:45 a.m.; the players were committed and so was the coaching staff,” Hewitt said. “Once we brought them together, it was clear that these young ladies wanted to be better and that they wanted to get something out of this experience. They saw an opportunity to improve and never stopped working at it.
“Working with this group was extremely enjoyable mainly because of their commitment to getting better.”
Stephens, a 19-year-old Waterloo High product who’s transferring from Georgia to Illinois this summer, said the UWS squad bonded quickly.
“Every player came in with individual goals and put those aside for the good of the team,” she said. “Shawn and the coaching staff provided guidance, and the team growth we saw this summer was incredible. We definitely exceeded my expectations at the start of the season. And we did it while getting solid contributions from every single player on the roster.”
Stephens and Emily Groark (Incarnate Word Academy/SLU) were the team’s top offensive threats this summer, with Andrea Frerker (Collinsville/SIUE), Emma Dutko (Granite City/SIUE), Abbie Miller (Francis Howell North/SLU) and Anna Walsh (Rockwood Summit/SLU) providing solid play in the midfield. Megan McClure (Webster Groves/Arkansas State) and Emily Puricelli (St. Joseph’s Academy/SLU) were the team’s goalkeepers, with Katie Houck (Freeburg/Dayton), Gabbie Holtrop (Belleville West/Jacksonville), Lindsay Origliasso (St. Joseph’s Academy/Samford) and Isabel Burke (Webster Groves/Missouri State) excelling in the backfield.
“We’re proud of what we were able to accomplish this summer,” said Stephens, who’s coaching youngsters in the Gallagher program and who wants to pursue a career in coaching after college. “Working together, our commitment level in practice and in games was exceptional. Through the season, when we faced challenges, it made us stronger and eventually made us better. As a team, we were able to come together and play as a united front.”