In many respects, it was a euphoric moment several years in the making.
About six years ago, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds started a development academy in which the city's pro soccer franchise could instruct and train what would hopefully become a new, celebrated generation of Western Pennsylvania soccer players.
Six years later, a competitive team was formed, one that included many girls who had been in the Riverhounds' academy since they were 7 or 8 years old. Without even playing a full year together as a team, that group became a national champion.
Playing in the highest bracket of the nation's preeminent tournament for their age group, the Under-15 Riverhounds Development Academy Lady Hounds captured first place in the U.S. Club Soccer National Championship July 21 in Aurora, Colo.
The victory was the product of years of diligence and work, not just for the players, but also for the Riverhounds organization and the academy itself.
"Obviously, it was a tremendous experience for the girls to go out there, especially in just their first year together," said Jason Kutney, one of the team's coaches. "To make it to the national championship was surprising to many, but it wasn't very surprising to us.
"These girls are very talented and certainly well trained. We were very happy for them and from all accounts -- from the parents, from the players and from the coaches -- it was certainly an amazing experience for them. I don't think they've stopped smiling yet."
Seven girls who hail from the South Xtra circulation area were members of the squad: Emma Bruno and Lauren Toth of Bethel Park, Maddi Santo and Carli Chiatto of Peters Township, Jayna Fittipaldo and Leah Memmo of Bridgeville, and Katie Banbury of Upper St. Clair.
While the championship stands as a crowning achievement, it was the culmination of a long stretch of league games and qualifying tournaments that tested the relatively new team.
From 2007 until 2012, the Riverhounds' academy was focused exclusively on training and player development. Last year, however, academy officials decided to make the under-15 girls the first full-time youth team sanctioned under the Riverhounds' umbrella.
What would appear to be a daunting task -- playing against top-level competition with a new group of players -- was anything but, as Kutney estimated 85 percent of the players on the Lady Hounds had been in the academy for at least five years.
On the field, it showed. Playing in the Atlantic Soccer League, a group of premier club teams around the East Coast, the Lady Hounds finished in first place before winning the league's tournament, which qualified them for the national championships.
By virtue of its strong record, the team was placed in the tournament's highest bracket, one in which it amassed a 1-1-1 record in group play. After a semifinal win against the Gilbert Soccer Club Arizona Arsenal, it was set to face a West Coast Wild team from California that beat it just three days earlier.
In that loss, the Lady Hounds had jumped out to 2-0 lead on the nation's No. 13 team in that age group only to fall, 5-3. In the championship match, they took an identical early lead, but this time around, they were determined to make it hold.
"We knew we weren't going to let that happen again," said forward Mikayla Mance, who was a standout at Yough High School last fall as a freshman. "We weren't going to give them a second chance."
With the victory, the team finished 18-2-5 in its inaugural season, a mark which included seven tournament championships across several states.
The team -- which is predominantly made up of sophomores, with a handful of juniors and freshmen -- features several players who have piqued the interest of top Division I programs such as North Carolina, Penn State and West Virginia, according to Kutney.
With such a talented roster, players hope that the early success can continue over the next few years, as the Lady Hounds and their parent club look to continue bolstering the local soccer community.
"It's been such a great experience that not a lot of girls have had because they either didn't take this route or they didn't want to do this," said team member Jayna Fittipaldo.
"If we keep doing what we have been doing and keep working hard, I'm sure we'll be able to accomplish more and more as the years go on."sportsother