ST. GEORGE — The Utah State Cup is designed in a way that makes it almost prohibitively difficult for teams outside of the Wasatch Front to participate in, let alone compete.
But for the second year in a row, St. George’s Fire FC 19U squad came microscopically close to completing the upset and making history, taking the final match to eight penalty kicks before falling to Avalanche FC in heartbreaking fashion on Oct. 23.
“We got as close as you can possibly get to winning state, and it just slipped right out of our hands,” Fire FC captain Jake Wittwer said.
It was the second straight year the club came within one win of becoming Utah’s representative in US Youth Soccer’s National Championship Series, which the organization describes as “the country’s most prestigious national youth soccer tournament.”
After taking a 2-1 record out of pool play into a quarterfinal matchup against South Jordan-based Copper Mountain, Fire forced a 3-3 tie before outscoring their opponent in PKs 4-3 to advance. In the semis, they met Utah Storm, the State Cup champion in the 2019 18U. Fire took that match 1-0 on a late penalty kick conversion, knocking out perhaps the favorites to win the tournament.
In the finals, Fire turned an early 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead before Avalanche, who had narrowly won the pool play matchup 1-0, drew the equalizer before the half. After a scoreless second half, the teams went to PKs and remained neck-and-neck through the first five, forcing extra penalties.
After two more even rounds, Avalanche capitalized on their shot, and its goalkeeper made a sprawling save, ending Fire’s run with a gnarly aftertaste.
“Felt bad for the boys, no doubt,” Fire coach Travis Wilkinson said. “Our kids have to work so much harder. They’ve put in countless hours to try to achieve the goal of bringing the cup back to St. George.”
Wilkinson said his team worked tirelessly to build a level of athleticism that would allow them to continuously pressure opposing teams long after less fit teams would exhaust and drop back. But it wasn’t just on the field where they had to persist.
The travel from St. George to Salt Lake City, where the tournament was held and most of the other 16 teams are based, put nearly 3,000 miles on Wilkinson’s car over the two week span of the tournament, he said. Some players opted to stay in the capital in hotels, at both financial and educational expense, with school in session. Then players had to deal with small things like not sleeping in their own beds and not having a kitchen to prepare an adequate breakfast before games.
Fire also had to get creative in preparing for the tournament. The premier club talent is located in the Salt Lake area, with a significant drop off in Southern Utah. They had to recruit younger teams and even college level players to compete against. Summer tournaments, their main avenue for calibrating against State Cup level teams, were canceled due to COVID-19.
For the first time since Fire was started by Wilkinson and his wife, Holly, in 2002, it was joined by another St. George-area team in the State Cup, 7 Elite, which is based in Washington City. Fire won the first ever State Cup matchup in St. George over 7 Elite by an uneven score of 4-1.
Many exclusionary circumstances have added up to make it hard for a club like Fire to become a contender in the tournament. Its ability to overcome the odds has turned heads. Tournament organizer Josh Magleby said Fire is the only team with “as a big a barrier” to succeed in the State Cup. Mike Polich, coach of this year’s Avalanche squad and last year’s Apex club that also defeated Fire, has taken notice as well.
“That adversity and obstacle to overcome is a significant additional hindrance that they have to deal with,” Polich said. “I have a lot of respect for them because they manage it so well.”
Polich praised not only the work ethic of his opponents, but also the developmental successes of Fire and their ability to continue competing at the level they do with constantly graduating talent.
What that means for teams in the big city is they may have to keep looking out for Fire FC, against all odds, for a long time to come.
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