Long before they owned their first iPhones or picked out a dress for prom, a group of 5-year-old bundles of energy converged at Canton’s Freedom Park in 2011 for their first girls 5-and-under rec league soccer practice for the Canton Soccer Club Dragons.
The merging together of this collection of players was totally random. There was no recruiting or geographic method of creating teams.
All the girls were strangers to one another — but not for long.
A healthy percentage of 5U first-time soccer players drift away from the sport after a couple of seasons — to pursue other sports or interests, or because their initial connection with soccer didn’t ignite a spark.
That wasn’t the case for these kindergarten-aged Dragons, close to 90% of whom are still playing high school soccer (or tennis, for one student-athlete) for high-caliber teams.
On May 29, most of the Dragons — now high school juniors or seniors in high school — reunited at Canton’s Heritage Park to surprise, thank and share childhood memories with their first soccer inspiration: Coach Stephanie Pickerel, whose caring and thoughtful coaching style fueled what evolved into decade-long playing careers for members of her first team.
“I was only 5, but I wanted to go to practice because Coach Pickerel made it so much fun,” said current Plymouth High School soccer player Gracie Milliken.
“I think Coach Pickerel is a main reason I’m still playing. If I didn’t like the sport right away, I probably would have tried something else.
“I remember playing the game sharks and minnows. It was a game with a lot of running, but she made it enjoyable.”
Pickerel, who played high school soccer in her home state of New Hampshire and still refs women’s games, was visibly touched when nine of her former Dragons players (including her daughter Alexis) emerged from a tent moments after she pulled into a Heritage Park parking lot with her husband Todd.
‘So sweet and hard-working’
They all wore the jerseys of their current high school teams (four play soccer for Canton, one for Salem, one for Plymouth and two for Dearborn Divine Child).
Pickerel was presented with a bouquet of flowers and a card signed by the players — a gesture that said, “Thank you for igniting our love for soccer.”
“What I remember about that first team was that they were always so sweet and hard-working at the same time,” Pickerel said. “Seeing them all together like this again is so cool.”
Pickerel said her 5U coaching philosophy was simple.
“The players have to love the game, otherwise they’re not going to want to keep doing it,” she said.
“That was a great group of girls; they still are.”
Winners on and off the pitch
It didn’t take long for the young Dragons to become formidable on the pitch, most of them recounted.
“I think one reason we won a lot was because Coach Pickerel emphasized cohesion more than being super-competitive,” said Jani Dickey, a junior player at Divine Child. “The first year, we were just running around having fun, but we started to get better and enjoyed the feeling of winning.”
As 6-year-olds, the Dragons finished 10-0 and won their CSC league. Playing against top-level travel teams from across the Midwest, they were Canton Cup finalists for three consecutive seasons and champions of the 2015 U9 Brighton Fall Jamboree.
“When I attended the first Dragons practice, I was already doing dance and gymnastics — two completely different sports,” said Carly Noe, a junior player for Canton.
“Even though I didn’t know anything about soccer — I basically just ran around in circles with the ball (she laughed) — Coach Pickerel was always nice and encouraging.
“After that, nothing stuck with me like soccer. Coach Pickerel implemented the love for the sport in me.”
Noe reflected on a pre-game tradition the Dragons practiced that she still remembers vividly.
“We always did this long chant before our games — it probably lasted 30 seconds and I still remember it to this day,” Noe said. “It was the cutest thing ever, but I don’t think the teams we were playing liked it because they had to wait until we were done.”
Alexis Pickerel, Stephanie’s daughter and a center-midfielder for Canton’s soccer team, said she was super-proud to have her mom as a coach.
“I told everybody, all the time, ‘My mom’s the coach, my mom’s the coach!’,” she said. “Those were such fun times. I remember every practice running around, having fun, but learning skills at the same time.”
Carly and her twin sister Caitlin said the intensity is always high when the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park teams square off.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t share positive pre-game conversations with her former Dragon teammates: Salem’s Addie Furlow and Plymouth’s Milliken.
“We’ll tell them, ‘Have a good game’ and ‘You’re going to do great’, things like that,” she said.
Because not even a red-hot rivalry can cool the strong sisterhood of the 5U Dragons.
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