The U-15 Lynbrook/East Rockaway Panthers had to wait two years to avenge their loss in the finals of the 2019 Hershey Memorial Day Challenge in Pennsylvania because of the coronavirus pandemic, and when their opponents’ penalty kick flew over the crossbar, signaling a 2-1 victory in the 2021 championship game, two years worth of emotions came pouring out of team members.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me to get to see everyone scream and jump out of excitement on the sideline,” midfielder Kailey Dunne said, “and all the girls on my team running over to [goaltender Jackie Chamides] to jump around her with everyone smiling.”
Kailey’s father, Michael Dunne, coaches the Panthers as part of the Lynbrook/East Rockaway Soccer Club, which plays in the Long Island Junior Soccer Premier Division. The Hershey Memorial Day Challenge is organized each year by the Hershey Soccer Club in Hershey, Pa., and is one of the most well known tournaments on the East Coast each year. In the tournament, the Panthers faced competition from Virginia, Maryland and Western New York. In all, 40 teams competed in the under-15 age bracket, and more than 400 squads played over Memorial Day weekend.
The Panthers played a pair of games on May 28 and another on the morning of May 29 to advance to the championship tilt. During those contests, Chamides didn’t give up a single goal as the team went undefeated into the championship game on May 29 against Victory Express, an academy team from Pennsylvania. The contest was knotted at 1 after regulation and overtime, and when it went to penalty kicks, Michael Dunne decided to leave it up to his players to decide who would shoot in the best-of-five contest. The first three volunteers scored for Lynbrook/East Rockaway, including Kailey, and after the first two shooters missed for Victory Express, the third kicker launched the ball over the crossbar, sealing the victory for the Panthers.
“It was absolutely wild,” Michael Dunne said. “My heart is so into this team and it was pretty special. Our goalie, Jackie, is a wonderful kid, very quiet, and this was a big moment for her. She didn’t let a goal in until the championship game, and only one goal the whole tournament. After the shot went over the crossbar and we were winners, the team just mobbed Jackie. It was so awesome.”
In addition to Chamides’s strong performance, Eva Garcia also excelled, notching a team-high eight goals over the four games. Garcia, a striker and team captain, said the tournament marked a sign of unity for the team and that she was motivated by the club’s “amazing fight.”
“Everyone was ready to take on whatever we had coming for us and being able to motivate each other and encourage each other was a really big part of the way we finished the tournament,” she said. “We got to go home with a big, big win and at the same time, we had all bonded and spent a lot of time together getting closer and more comfortable with each other, which I think helped us out when it was game time.”
Dunne said he has coached the team since 2014, and that while he thought it was possible for the club to win the title, his main goal was to make sure his players had fun, especially after missing last year’s tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic. The title was the first the team has won at the tournament. Dunne said he grew up playing soccer and often runs into people he played with as much as four decades ago, and he often reminisces with them, which is an experience he wants his players to enjoy.
“The bonding for the team, the experience of winning this championship was just incredible,” he said. “Youth soccer should be an amazing experience where they should be building friendships, lifetime experiences and having fun. The way they played was out of this world against some very high-level teams. It’s beyond my wildest dreams to win this championship and it was well-earned.”
His daughter said that the win was even sweeter considering the team lost the championship two years ago and couldn’t play last year amid the pandemic.
“After losing in the finals in 2019, and not being able to attend the tournament in 2020, it felt like we finally got our revenge by winning and proving that we belonged in that tournament,” Kailey said, “and we’ll definitely be back next year to defend our title.”