On such a dreary Sunday morning many would be happy to cozy up to a mug of coffee and the Sunday Times. Those at the Comeau have a completely different agenda. Armed with umbrellas and rain parkas they cheer on a special group of girls who play the sport most in the world refer to as football with a love for the game and an uncommon commitment to each other.
The game against the visitors from Highland is tough and physical; the visitors do their best to intimidate the Rainbows, who generally are a couple of years younger and diminutive in comparison.
The Rainbows stay focused despite the aggressive play from their opponents and display a crisp, team-oriented style of soccer with a stingy defense and deft passing. The Rainbows lead for most the game until a late Highland goal ends the contest in a 3-3 tie. Despite the inconclusive outcome, the post-game mood is upbeat even with waterlogged cleats.
Growing up together
To get a sense of how far the Rainbows, who play in the Girls Under-14 division of the East Hudson Valley Soccer League, have come in their four years of existence, consider that the club did not score a single goal until the end of its second season. From those humble beginnings the team has since enjoyed an undefeated campaign and has moved to the larger East Hudson Valley League, comprised of more than 20,000 players.
Despite a roster of 14 players, the smallest in its 10-team division, the girls are holding their own and currently sit in fourth place in a 10-team division. Travel team soccer is generally reserved for the most competitive players. The team is the northern-most outpost in its division and generally has to travel at least an hour and sometimes more for away games. In short, these girls are playing for the love of the game and more importantly, for each other.
Prior to 2005, the Woodstock club did not field a girls-only team. Alan and Sally Rothschild founded the Rainbows that year. The idea was to form a team for girls and run by girls. However, finding a female coach proved difficult and the Rothschilds asked Damien Delisio to helm the squad.
Delisio had been coaching youth soccer since his late twenties and coached his daughter Emma on a recreation team as well as a boys travel team. In that inaugural year of 2005, the Rainbows fielded a collection of players with relatively scant experience playing soccer.
“Some were softball players, some were swimmers. We took whoever wanted to be on the team and said ‘lets go,’” recalls Delisio.
The first two seasons were a steep learning curve. Delisio stressed the fundamentals of the game such as defense and dribbling. Winning took a backseat to developing a cohesive team. One might imagine that the constant losing the team endured would be demoralizing. However, that proved to be far from the case.
“We were just smiling to get on the field. We concentrated more on teamwork than on winning. It’s really just about playing and having a good time,” said Rainbow Lachlan Brooks, who at 14 is the oldest member of the squad.
The devotion of the team to each other is exemplified by the collective decision to compete at the under 14 level, even though, apart from Brooks, the team has players as young as 11. Competing against older and stronger opponents has likely benefited the Rainbows.
One season the team competed in a boy’s league. They took the slings and arrows and emerged as a tougher, more cohesive unit.
“The boys helped us become more aggressive. Even though they beat us the whole season, we were prepared and went undefeated the next year,” said captain and goalkeeper Shayne Esposito. Added Avery Maillet: “We wouldn’t go down easily. We learned to push back and become fast and strong.”
To compensate for a small roster, the Rainbows need to be in exceptionally good physical condition. The team practices twice a week with games on the weekend. Practices involve lots of running and precision passing drills. The girls are so attuned to playing the team game that Delisio and assistants Alan Brooks and Tom King have to prod them to be more aggressive in attacking the goal.
A strong value system
As an offshoot of the Woodstock Soccer Club, which has 200 players on various recreation clubs, the girls were steeped in the mores of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). The ethos of the organization puts an emphasis on the learning aspect of the game for players ages 4-16. AYSO games deemphasize competition by not keeping scores or statistics.
Commissioner Keith Anderson of the Woodstock Soccer Club praised Delisio and his assistants for adhering to those core values while making the transition to a more competitive environment.
“He’s done a fantastic job with a bunch of girls who had never played in a competitive environment. We’re seeing the fruition of having a committed bunch of girls go through a period where the only negative impact would be if they were preoccupied by the score,” said Anderson.
The on-field demeanor of the Rainbow players illustrates that they are learning life lessons far beyond the results on the scoreboard.
“These guys have taught me the importance of winning and losing with grace and honor. They never foul a person on purpose. If they knock someone down, they stop play to ask the person if they are OK,” said Delisio.
Being a part of the Rainbows is nearly a full-time commitment for players, coaches and parents alike. Joy McManigal is the mother of Rainbow sisters Shayne and Kale Espositio. The family moved to Woodstock from Connecticut four years ago and soccer has been integral to the transition.
“All of our friendships revolve around soccer,” she said. The parents are volunteers as well, lining the field and building a storage shed on the sidelines.
Parents and players carpool to road games as far away as Pennsylvania. The bonding on those trips has forged deep friendship between parents and players alike. When the team won its first game, the celebration included a party where the players took turns cutting off Delisio’s long hair.
After each game, Delisio sends e-mails to his charges, summarizing their performances and highlighting accomplishments, as well as pointing out areas to improve upon.
“It’s very personal in a very positive way,” said McManigal.
The esprit de corps that the girls share goes beyond the inevitable social cliques that develop as children enter middle school and high school.
“The camaraderie they have transcends social groups. When they put on that uniform they are a team,” added McManigal. ++