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By Tiffany Razzano

n its inaugural season, the Long Island Fury defeated River Cities Football Club from Missouri 1-0 to take home the 2006 Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) National Championship.

The WPSL, a 39-team league that spans from coast to coast, is ranked the No. 2 women's soccer league in the world by Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

Soccer veteran, Paul Riley, the current director of the Albertson Soccer Club, who played for the Long Island Rough Riders 1996 championship team and later went on to coach them, led The Fury to a standout year as their head coach. With an average age of 19 years old, including several 15- and 16-year-old players, the team unexpectedly became a force to be reckoned with from their very first game, when they defeated the Northampton Laurels, of Pennsylvania, 5-0.

"We figured if we finished .500 we'd be happy," Riley said. "But it just got stranger and stranger as the season went on. We just kept winning. Since it was unexpected, that made it even better."

The players were just as surprised at how well they did their first season.

"Looking at our roster, we look good on paper," said Kerri McNicholas, an East Islip native who played for the Rockville Centre Soccer Club for five years and is going into her sophomore year at Boston College. "Then, after we won our first game 5-0, I thought, 'Wow, we could be something.'"

Alaina Beyar, who will be moving from Staten Island to Rockville Centre at the end of the summer and will play for South Side High School in the fall, agreed. "I was definitely surprised," she said. "I knew there were great players coming in, but I didn't think we'd get that far because it was our first year."

With a record of 11-2-2, The Fury didn't concede a single goal in their first 642 minutes of play, as well as the last 355 minutes of the season. Goalie Becky Wachsberge recorded 11 clean sheets during the season. Seventeen-year-old Kelly Henderson, of Baldwin, who will be a freshman at Boston College this fall, was named MVP of the championship tournament. Rebecca Moros, of Larchmont; Lorraine Quinn, of Farmingdale; Mary Schneck, of Dix Hills; and Alyssa Pember, of Northport; were also named to the All-Tournament team.

Last fall, when the WPSL expressed a desire to have a New York franchise in their league, the owner of the Atlantic City and Delaware teams, Matt Driver, suggested Riley as the coach of that team. The rest fell into place nicely. Riley, who coached the original Fury teams at HBC Soccer Club and later at Albertson, turned the Long Island team into The Fury. Many of the players he brought to the team had also played for him at one time or another, either at HBC or Albertson.

The team also has a good mix of younger and older players. On top of the very talented younger players who stepped up this season, the roster also boasts a handful of Under-21 US National team players, as well as a handful of players from Hofstra who also play for the Irish National team.

But there was never any animosity or tension amongst the girls. In fact, they integrated rather quickly and easily.

"At first we were a little scared," Beyar said, "but the [older] girls are so friendly and really welcoming. They helped us play harder and pushed us. It was easy [getting along]; we were like a family. Plus, most of us knew each other beforehand."

The Long Island soccer community also supported the team, with many of the clubs coming out to watch the girls play. Also, when they won the championship, there were many congratulatory emails and phone calls from all over Long Island, Riley said.

"[This season] made a lot of heroes," Riley said. "There are quite a few little girls out there with some new heroes now."

He added, "It's nice to see girls signing autographs again. Bringing top women's soccer to Long Island has been great. I hope it continues and gets better ... Long Island is a hotbed of soccer, and we proved that this year."

Now the team is already thinking about next year, as this year's surprise success will bring a lot more pressure next season.

Beyar said, "I feel like we will win it again, but it definitely is going to be a little bit harder."

"Now every one is gunning for us," Riley said. "It will be a little different next year." While it might be more difficult, this also means that the younger players will also have another year of experience under their belt. But in one of the top countries for women's soccer, there are a number of teams out there with great players, all hoping to take the championship title next year.

"The glue we need to win the championship is there forever," Riley said. "But I hope [the girls] enjoy it, because it might never happen to them again. To get back there again will be a miracle, but we'll give it our best shot."

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