BOISE — Most Idaho teams wrapped up the club soccer season with the Idaho State Cup in late May.
Just five ventured a bit further, qualifying for the US Youth Soccer Far West Regionals in Hawaii last month.
Since then, one team has been working during summer break. The Boise Nationals Italia 15-and-under girls are the first Idaho team to advance to the US Youth Soccer National Championships.
The team finished second at Far West, but because Carlsbad Elite (California South) is a national league champion, its place in the eight-team national tournament was already secure. The Nationals' 3-0 loss to Carlsbad in the Far West title game was inconsequential.
"They are starting to believe that they can play with anybody," coach Mark Prince said. "All these girls just want a chance to prove themselves. Their soccer will never be the same."
The Nationals (21-3-1) open nationals against Tennessee Soccer Club 16 on Tuesday in Overland Park, Kan. The Boise squad will have gone a stretch of 30 days between games.
"We've just been practicing over and over. We really want this," said striker Sierra Smith, whose team has outscored opponents 97-15. "We know it's an honor to be able to go to nationals. We are ready to play."
In addition to the long stretch of practices, the Nationals are venturing into uncharted territory. It's an exciting - and scary - moment for the mostly soon-to-be high school sophomores.
"Nationals, I think that's crazy," goalkeeper Celeste Santangelo said. "It's a dream come true. I knew we had it in us."
Putting mental toughness to the test has been a common occurrence for many players.
Christa Lewis drives to practices each week from Mountain Home, Karli Stone was a kicker for the Eagle High varsity football team last fall, and Santangelo recovered from the removal of a benign three-pound tumor in time for Far West.
With Santangelo out six weeks, Alexandra Ward stepped in at goalkeeper and helped the team win State Cup without allowing a goal.
"Really, the only thing I was thinking about is, 'When am I going to get to play soccer again?' " Santangelo said. "The doctor actually released me a week early so I could go and play in Hawaii during regionals. I only had about two practices before we left."
Santangelo sat out the first game against Hawaii at regionals, but played in the second half of their second game and never came out again.
"We won state when I was out, so I was obviously really proud of them for winning," Santangelo said. "To go to regionals and do that well, I mean, you know your team is good and you know you're a strong team and can work together well. But when you go and play at that level and you win, you're just like, 'Wow, I had no idea.' "
To keep things from getting boring during four straight weeks without a game, Prince has varied practices by bringing in other coaches, or trying new drills and activities.
Boise Nationals director and Northwest Nazarene men's coach Coe Michaelson has run several practices.
"These guys come in and add a different flair and make it fun," Prince said. "The girls are still having fun and not getting burnt out on soccer, but they're still focused on getting better, moving the ball and getting some touches. That way it's not always boring Mark doing the same thing over and over again."
A core group of players have been on the same club team the past four seasons, helping the group go from back-to-back third-place finishes at state to an unprecedented national tournament appearance.
"Every single year we've had a lot of heart and hard work, but with the new players, we got even more," Rachael Schoonover said. "I guess we gained more trust in our coach and ourselves. That really pulled us together as a team."
Players from Timberline, Rocky Mountain, Mountain Home, Boise, Kuna, Eagle, Borah and Mountain View high schools make up the team. Despite being rivals during the high school season, the girls don't have any issues coming together for the Nationals.
"It's been neat. They've just really grown together," Prince said. "No matter what school they go to, they are all going to play against each other, and they are going to see each other and run across the field and give each other hugs. That's what this sport - well, any sport - should be about."
Rachel Roberts: 377-6422, Twitter: @IDS_VarsityX