Union Academy girls’ soccer starting to earn respect
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Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2014

Union Academy girls’ soccer starting to earn respect

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/14/02/1r01NP.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - COURTESY OF PATRICK HENDERSON
    Senior defender Valentina Pantani is part of a Union Academy defense that didn’t allow a goal during an 11 game win streak.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/14/02/Zwl47.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - COURTESY OF PATRICK HENDERSON
    Union Academy freshman Lexi Torres (five goals, 18 assists) shifted from the defense early on this season to the central midfield.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/14/02/TVHGA.Em.138.jpeg|210
    - COURTESY OF PATRICK HENDERSON
    Union Academy junior co-captain Nikki Torres (14) has 17 goals and five assists this season. She is the one “that makes his team go, controlling both the offense and defense,” said coach Vic Johnson.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/14/02/UiDNe.Em.138.jpeg|252
    - COURTESY OF PATRICK HENDERSON
    Sisters Nikki (14) and Lexi Torres (16) have helped the Union Academy girls’ soccer team to its best start in school history.

Vic Johnson’s Union Academy girls’ soccer team has been fighting to earn the respect of their competition in the seven-year history of the program.

The girls’ soccer team at Union Academy, a small school even by 1A standards, is finally beginning to establish itself as a strong team after two seasons under Johnson.

After winning a school-record 14 games last year (14-5-1 overall, and 10-3-1 in the Yadkin Valley conference), the Cardinal have been even better this season.

Union Academy, No. 5 in the state 1A coaches poll, are 11-2-1 (through April 16) and 5-0 in YVC play, including a 2-0 win over defending league champion Gray Stone Day on March 28.

The team won 11 straight games, outscoring their competition 77-0 in that span.

“We’ve really started to put something together here this season,” Johnson said. “But we still feel kind of like the small kid on the block. We know the bigger kids are going to try and push us around. But I think that has really motivated us to play with a little chip on our shoulder. I think it continues to push the girls to want to prove themselves even more.”

Junior co-captain and center midfielder Nikki Torres, who has been big a part of the team’s evolution in the past three seasons, said the players have embraced their role as a small school.

“We’ve always been a smaller school, and kind of felt like the underdog, with no one really expecting us to win,” said Torres. “But we expect to win now, and that is all that really matters. But looking back, it’s mind-blowing how far we’ve come and really exciting to think we’re in a place to contend for a conference championship and more.”

The Cardinal girls are also motivated by the Union Academy boys’ soccer team (also coached by Johnson), which became their first team in school history to win a conference title last fall.

“Right now, the boys have bragging rights,” Johnson said laughing. “But the girls really want to be the first girls’ team to win a conference championship.”

The Cardinal’s run to a conference title could come down to a May 5 trip to Gray Stone Day.

The entire Cardinal squad has benefited from Johnson’s wealth of experience from some of top high school and club programs in the area.

He has been a girls’ assistant at South Mecklenburg (1997-98), the boys’ and girls’ head coach at Myers Park (1998-2001), a girls’ assistant at Nation Ford (S.C.) (2008) and the girls’ head coach at Fort Mill (S.C.) (2009). He’s also coached club soccer with Charlotte United Futbol Club (1996-2009) and currently coaches with F.C. Carolina Alliance.

Johnson played soccer at Queens University of Charlotte, graduating in 1994.

“This (Union Academy girls’ team) has been a good fit for me, but honestly these girls have done all the hard work,” Johnson said. “All 21 girls on the roster give everything they’ve got from practices to games to everything we do. They want to be a good team and they are willing to put in the hard work to be successful.”

Johnson said Nikki Torres (17 goals, five assists), an all-conference and all-region pick, is the player “that makes his team go, controlling both the offense and defense.”

Torres gets help from her little sister, Lexi Torres (five goals, 18 assists), a freshman who shifted from the defense early on this season to central midfielder with her sister and sophomore Anna Sidders (nine goals, three assists).

“I enjoy playing with all of my teammates, but I have absolutely loved playing with my sister,” said Nikki Torres. The two have only played together on one organized team prior to this season. “We play so well together, it’s like we have one mind.”

Senior Valentina Pantani and freshman goalkeeper Alivia McKelvy (57 saves in first 13 games) have made a big impact on the defense.

Senior co-captain Hannah Cripe and sophomore Linsey Starnes lead the offense from their forward positions.

Right now, Johnson says his team is focused on closing out the regular season strong.

“Honestly, we haven’t even talked about the playoffs, yet,” Johnson said. “The only goal we’ve talked about is winning a conference championship. Once we get to the playoffs, we will focus on that and hope to keep winning as long as we can.”

Nikki Torres hopes this is just the start of a winning tradition.

“We’re really proud of what we have accomplished so far, and we feel like we can do even more,” she said. “We want to set a higher standard for everyone who comes here and plays to want to get to that level.”

Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at jedwardsjr23@gmail.com.

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