By Greg Oldfield
Thirty-nine seconds. The time it takes to sprint a full soccer field and back. Half the time to send a text message. One third of the time to fill a gas tank.
Thirty-nine seconds was embedded into the minds of the Central Susquehanna Phoenix players all season. In last year’s 12U Presidents Cup final, the Phoenix conceded the game-winner with thirty-nine seconds remaining, losing 2-1 to FC Delco.
“It was tough,” Phoenix coach Brett Michaels told EPYSA about that game. After taking a 1-0 lead, Central Susquehanna gave up the equalizer in the second half before Delco scored again in the game’s final seconds. “I tried to be upbeat,” Michaels said. “I knew what my players were capable of. It was a long ride home.”
Michaels, not the lead singer from the metal-rock band Poison, he proclaims, often reminded his players about the difference between a state title and second place. “We have a hill at our training complex,” he said. “After our sprints, I’ll say we have one more minute, then when we’re done I’ll say thirty-nine seconds.” Whether it’s ball work, small-sided games, or fitness, the remaining time in any activity has meaningful symbolism. “We do thirty-nine seconds extra of everything.”
Nearly a year later, playing on that same field, the familiar increment of time challenged the Phoenix players again in the 13U Presidents Cup girls final against Parkland South when the teams were tied 2-2 late and headed to overtime. Only this time, Gabby Kashi scored the winner in the final seconds, leading the Phoenix to the state title.
The game opened positively for Central Susquehanna, who scored twice in the first fifteen minutes, getting in behind the South Parkland defense with a number of splitting through-balls. Not long after the first whistle, Delaney Willoughby, who had three assists in the game, sent a dangerous cross that forced an own goal. Later, Willoughby sent another looping cross to the far post that Kaci Grimm headed in for a 2-0 lead.
“We opened in a 4-3-3, with a little single pivot action,” Michaels said after the game, “and we thought we would have some opportunities. They’re a real quality team. We’ve seen them before in EDP play and throughout tournaments. We knew that we needed to jump.”
South Parkland pulled a goal back late in the first half off a scramble in front of the goal, then controlled play throughout the second half before scoring again on a long-range shot that left no chance for Phoenix keeper Amelia Hoffman.
“They dominated I would say the middle thirty minutes of play,” Michaels said. “We had to make changes in the later portions of the second half, went back to our 4-3-3, found some space in behind, and we were able to work some three-touch entry, and fortunately it paid off.”
Willoughby found space again down the right side and sent a cross through the box that Kashi tapped home first-time. Seconds later, when the game ended, the Phoenix players embraced each other in one celebratory huddle, knowing that they’d come full circle.
“It feels good,” Kashi said after the game about her role as the hero. “Especially because we’ve never made it this far. Last year we lost off of thirty-nine seconds, and now we scored with thirty-nine seconds.” Kashi, who also applied pressure on the opening goal, credited her training for being in an opportunistic position in front of goal. “We work in practice,” she said, “and me and my dad, we always work corners and getting a touch.”
Central Susquehanna first fielded a team in 1988, then a U-19 team under the name Danville- Millville Soccer Club. A year later, they became CSSC. Today, the club has teams at most age levels and serves players from surrounding communities such as Bloomsburg, Milton, Middleburg, Northumberland, Selingrove, Sunbury, and Watsontown.
For a small club from the northern part of the state, the path to a state final is paved with highways, and the journey for the Central Susquehanna Phoenix has been a long and winding one, filled with rest stops and gas stations, long nights and weekends. For Michaels, the friendships and family culture was established from the beginning. His daughter, Kylie, plays on the team, and his wife, Kelly, manages the grueling travel schedules that started when the team was in its early stages.
The Phoenix has been together for seven years, with most of the players residing in Danville. The players got into soccer by watching their older siblings. Even at an early age, according to Michaels, the girls would talk about the game, picking up terminology and tactics. “They’d be saying things you wouldn’t hear five and six year-olds saying,” he said.
The first year, the girls traveled to Harrisburg to play in a coed league at the Yellow Breeches Sports Complex. They won that first league and haven’t stopped. Joining the Central Pennsylvania Youth Soccer League, the Phoenix finished second the first season and were promoted to the first division. Soon they won the league and eventually joined the Elite Development Program, where success continued, winning division titles and rising in the ranks.
“It’s hard to explain,” Michaels said about the team’s early success. “I don’t want to take any credit.” Michaels, who’s been involved in soccer as well as other sports as a coach for over twenty-five years has never seen a team so coachable and focused. “You know when you have a group that collectively loves the game,” he said. “They’re fortunate to have success, but it doesn’t get to their heads.” Calling his team sponges for their eagerness to learn and train, the Phoenix follows a mantra of attitude and effort, and even after winning the state title, still feels a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to play in big games.
Because of the club’s location, the team faces adversities not often shared by other teams pushing to raise their level of play. For the Phoenix, being a travel team is a term not taken lightly. “We started playing CPYSL early,” Michaels said. “Once we traveled to Green Castle two hours and forty minutes to play a game.” Now, a mainstay in EDP, the Phoenix often drives farther distances for games, sometimes organizing doubleheaders to cut down on the miles.
This past fall, they played away doubleheaders against PA Rush and Reading Rage in the same day, followed by another trip to Deptford Premier and Hulmeville three weeks later.
“Everybody has gone along with it. It’s become the norm. The kids and parents are all in.” This season, as a way to transition to 11 vs 11 and prepare for a higher level of competition, the Phoenix opened the 2022-23 season at the Al Perlini Tournament in Warminster. The team went 3-0-1 with wins over Penn Alliance, Steel United, and Langhorne-Neshaminy and a draw against Springfield to finish top of the group. “We got bumped in EDP, and I told the girls these are teams we are going to play,” Michaels said. “Every year, everything is going to be a dogfight.”
In the fall EDP season, the Phoenix finished 7-0-3 to win their bracket and have kept rolling ever since. They won their age group at Yellow Breeches again as well as the EDP Spring Kickoff Tournament prior to their memorable run in the state cups that continues in three weeks with the Region 1 tournament in Plymouth Meeting June 16-20. The schedule is yet to be announced, but Michaels believes his team is ready. “The exposure to playing in other states and traveling has prepared them for these kinds of games,” he said. “They believe, they adapt, and they go.”
The Phoenix will conclude their spring season in a single weekend before regionals, the first of those games coming against group leaders Capital Area. “We’ll keep focused on fundamentals, a lot of work on set pieces,” Michaels said, expecting close games where they’ll need an edge. No matter what happens in their upcoming games, one thing is certain. The Phoenix players will always remember the lesson of thirty-nine seconds and how the extra effort and commitment turned around their team’s fortunes in the Presidents Cup.