It was a typical July night. The air was humid, the bugs were out, and the sun waited until almost 9 p.m. to retire. While other Long Island high schoolers were winding down from long days at camp or maybe swimming, the boys of Smithtown Arsenal were preparing for another sweaty night of practice.
Nothing about the first school-free month of 2013 is leisurely for them. How can it be? Smithtown Arsenal isn't spending its summer relaxing -- it's trying to win a national championship.
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"Most of our summer is consumed with soccer practice," Steven Dovi, a junior at Smithtown West, said. "It definitely changes your summer. We're working hard. We're working for a common goal."
Smithtown, currently the top-ranked under-16 team in the nation, will be competing in the U-16 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship, scheduled to begin Tuesday in Overland Park, Kan.
The team qualified for the eight-team tournament by winning the Region I championship July 2, defeating the Arlington (Va.) Strikers, 1-0, in Rhode Island. The championship game victory came a day after a 3-1 win over Century United, a powerhouse from Pennsylvania, in the semifinals.
Century had topped Smithtown earlier in the season, making the rematch all the more intense.
"We play in a lot of big games, but this one just felt different," T.J. Butzke, a junior at St. Anthony's, said. "We weren't really talking a lot during warm-ups. We were all focused."
Butzke scored all three goals in the win. His first tally came two minutes into the game.
"When we lost to them, they scored early," he said. "So it felt like times were changing. Once we scored another quick one, we had it in our heads that we were the better team."
But they still needed to beat Arlington.
"It was tough," Casey Abelein, a senior at Port Jefferson, said. "But we have a great coach and he brought us back to earth. He told us that we had to prepare, go to bed early, and eat right so that we were intense enough to play in a championship game."
There was no Century hangover and, after their fourth shutout in five days, Smithtown was headed to nationals for the second time in three years.
"We know what we're getting into," Dovi said of the upcoming tournament. "We know what the level of competition is going to be like. You only have three games to prove yourself. Every game counts."
The team convenes five nights a week to practice. "Some nights, I just want to stay home and hang out," Harrison Weilbacher, a junior at Sachem North, said. "But you have to sacrifice some things to get to the top level and play for a national title. Only a few select kids get to play for a national championship. Not a lot of people get to experience this."
"What if we win?" Abelein said. "It's going to be crazy. Winning a national championship is a dream of mine and everyone on this team."