By Jay Steiger
Eighteen months ago, Jeff Bergeleen was just another soccer dad. Proud of his children but content to cheer from the sidelines. Then a local league official informed the parents from his daughter’s team that there was no coach, and if someone did not step forward, the team would have to disband.
Bergeleen had experience playing the sport and, with some trepidation, told the league he would coach. He soon discovered that he enjoyed the experience and returned as a coach for the following season.
Now his team has achieved a rare feat for La Mesa — winning a tournament in highly-competitive Orange County to advance to the Western States Playoffs, held in late March in Carson City, Nevada.
Coach Bergeleen’s team is a group of 8- and 9-year-old girls who call themselves the Iron Maidens. They play for La Mesa American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). AYSO is the largest national youth soccer program and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
La Mesa AYSO has been teaching soccer for 40 years. The top teams from ages 8 to 13 in each region compete in an east county area playoff in December, with the winners advancing to a sectional tournament in Orange County in February.
While La Mesa AYSO regularly sends teams to sectionals, the competition there is extremely high, and it has been 20 years since a La Mesa Team has advanced to the Western States Championship.
Coach Bergeleen said that advancing to the championship is “mind blowing” and he is in a bit of amazed shock as to how well the team has done and how far they have gone in regular season and tournament play. He doesn’t feel that his coaching was anything particularly unique. He knows these are young girls and works to balance teaching basic skills with keeping things enjoyable.
On the first day of practice he told the parents and players he wanted to, “Put the fun back in fundamentals.” Team building was also a key component, with the players having group events, including trips to watch the SDSU Women’s Soccer Team.
Bergeleen noted that although he appreciates the thanks he receives from parents, he is personally grateful to the players on the team for showing so much team spirit and sportsmanship. He said his two top scoring forwards were both sick during the sectional tournament and still scored a combined 14 goals. Bergeleen also recognized his assistant coach, Scott Schultz, for his work in support of the team.
La Mesa AYSO Commissioner, Nicole A Ciokiewicz, said she is incredibly proud of the team and their success.
“From the start of the season, they hit the ground running and it is impressive to see how far they have come and how much further they will go,” she said.
Ciokiewicz believes that the AYSO organization is like a family and that if it takes a village to raise a child, AYSO is a wonderful village. ASYO has six core philosophies: Balanced Teams, Player Development, Everyone Plays, Positive Coaching, Open Registration and Good Sportsmanship, which are unique within the world of youth sports.
La Mesa AYSO is currently running a Spring Select program and will start registration for the fall season in April. They have a Facebook page and their website is lamesaayso.org.
The Iron Maidens are hard at work practicing regularly and the parents are also hard at work fundraising for the trip to Carson City. The team was recently featured on Fox 5 San Diego and they have set up a donation page at bit.ly/2l2SaaG.
Coach Bergeleen noted he always tries to keep things in perspective and tells his team to play hard, but no matter what result they achieve in the Western States Championship, they are already winners because they work together and play as a team rather than individuals.
—Jay Steiger is a parent, school, community, and youth sports volunteer. He serves as the public relations chairperson for the La Mesa AYSO Board.