Back row from left, Head Coach Olman Valverde, Ella Regalado, Aubry Kilmurray, Nevyn Walsh, Lola Stober, Sophia Farrah Valverde, Ashley Ochoa, Milliany Rodriguez, Kayla Serota, Lela Goodrich, Isabella Perez and Assistant Coach Marc Serota.
Front row from left, Giavanna Champigny, Emily Block, Alysa Justo, Allyson Rosendale and Avea Jackson. CONTRIBUTED

An Upper Keys girls soccer team remembered its run for the AYSO Hurricane Cup as a U12 squad last year. It ended with a hard-fought second-place finish for the Islanders — their mainland rivals in Homestead came away with the cup. 

Fast forward to Dec. 11. The young Florida Keys Soccer Club team that now competes in the U14 division squared off against Homestead for the Hurricane Cup. Full regulation and two overtimes weren’t enough for the teams, leading to a shootout. With Islanders players hitting the back of the net and star goalkeeper Allyson Rosendale stopping Homestead shots, the Islanders’ victory was a bit of redemption for the team coached by Olman Valverde and Marc Serota. It was also validation of the team’s progression, talent and grit as new Hurricane Cup champions.

“It was affirmation for young athletes in this town,” Serota said. 

The 16 girls who make up the Islanders U14 team come from various schools, including Key Largo School, Ocean Studies Charter School, Treasure Village Montessori and Plantation Key School. They were tested in their first game against Okeeheelee’s B Team on Dec. 10. Down two goals, the players took their coaches’ messages to not give up and came back to win, 4-2. 

A second game on Dec. 10 saw the Islanders blanking Okeeheelee’s A Team, 3-0, with strong goalkeeper play by Rosendale. The following day, the Islanders took to the field to play against a strong Key West team. The Islanders came away with a nail-biting 1-0 win to go on to face Homestead in the finals. 

Serota said the girls had an hour to recuperate before taking the field for the final match. Serota said Homestead got up on the Islanders 1-0. But they equalized the score to send it into overtime and eventually to a shootout. The Islanders’ fifth shooter, Alysa Justo, scored to give them the lead in the shootout. A subsequent stop by Rosendale on Homestead’s final shooter ended with the Islanders champions of a tournament in the Hurricane Cup that began in Islamorada several years ago. 

“Our next priority is to find more players in our age group, we need depth in our squad,” said coach Olman Valverde. “A key moment in the game was the end of the third quarter. I challenged the team to be more aggressive on 50-50 balls and while marking players as we looked like we were playing with the fear of being defeated. They cranked it up as the team mom says and came out victorious with our goalkeeper.”

“We worked on deep breathing to get Ally’s heart rate down. And she was in the right mindset. She’s just an amazing player and the backbone of the team,” Serota said. 

Among the other notable team members playing critical roles was Avea Jackson. Serota said she’s everywhere on the field, and she can’t be slowed down or taken out of the game. She scored on a free kick to help seal the semifinal victory against Key West.

“She can play any position. She’s by far one of the best athletes out there. She’s a team leader,” he said. 

One of the more recent additions to the Islanders is Nevyn Walsh. She’s played goalie, defense and attack. Serota said her improvement has been rapid and she has a motor that never quits. 

“She’s one of those real superstars,” he said. 

Scoring goals for the Islanders is star striker Sophia Farrah Valverde. She came back from a broken collarbone a month-and-a-half ago. She couldn’t practice for weeks, leaving the team worried whether she’d return in time. Sure enough, she healed and took the field with her teammates. She led the Islanders in scoring and netted the game-winning goal in the semifinals and the tying goal in the finals against Homestead.

“She was absolutely amazing and really stepped up. It’s what everybody expected,” he said. 

Serota also shared words of praise for Lilly Carr, the Islanders’ youngest player who could have played U12 but decided to play up a level. Gia Champigney consistently played against bigger girls and during rough play, but she never backed down. And Serota’s daughter, Kayla, played with a wrap on a broken finger. She assisted on the game-winning goal in the semifinals against Key West. 

Other tournament scorers included Ashly Ochoa, Ella Regalado, Zoe Martinez and Isabella Perez.

With a Hurricane Cup win, the Islanders will move on to play in the state tournament, the Weston Cup, in January. For now, the Islanders are getting healthy and preparing for stiffer competition. And they could see Homestead again. 

“We’ll do some drills and different kinds of exercises, but we also scrimmage U14 boys,” Serota said. “We’ll scrimmage the JV team at Coral Shores. We’ll play much tougher competition and older players to get us prepared.”

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