When the full time whistle blew, Ashley Economopoulos limped onto the field in a line directly to her older sister Katelyn, her arms outstretched to hug her and another teammate as an on-field celebration broke out.
After the warm embrace, Ashley found her way through the crowd to her other older sister, Kristen, whose goal in the sixth minute held up as the winner in a 2-0 victory for the Penn FC Lightning that clinched the first ever U.S. Youth Soccer national championship for a team from Central Pennsylvania.
Known as the Econ sisters for short, twins Katelyn and Kristen and younger sister Ashley (a 2007 on a 2004 team) were a big part of the success the Penn FC U17 girls team had this season en route to being crowned national champions.
But a non-contact knee injury at an ID camp in June ruled a still recovering Ashley out for the run through regionals in New Jersey and on the national stage last week in Florida.
“After my injury I was really down on myself, I was upset but then my team came through and picked me up,” Ashley said. “They worked hard every single game, never gave up even when they were tired they pushed through and they said they did it for me, which made me feel good.”
Bill Becher, one of three coaches of the team along with Jason Pelletier and Clayton Suydam, said losing Ashley was a big blow to the team since she was a starter and one of the team’s leading goal scorers.
“Make no mistake about it, we’re a better team with her,” Becher said. “But I think that might have given a little extra motivation to the rest of them.”
At each of Penn FC Lightning’s games at regionals, the team formed a prayer circle initially just to pray for Ashley’s recovery but it grew to be a way to bring the team together with prayers for safety and other concerns.
“We were just trusting in God and I just really feel like God gave us this gift,” said Kristen, who delivered the early goal on a play from the wing that was the lone goal of the game before Alex Murphy’s incredible strike in the 75th minute sealed the victory over Utah Celtic.
Watching from the sidelines with a bulky black and white brace on her left knee wasn’t always easy for Ashley, especially in moments where they went down and she could only watch.
“Even though I have two sisters on the team, the whole team feels like they’re all my sisters and they’ve all just been so supportive of me,” Ashley said. “Just to be around them and in that environment with them made me feel so much better.”
Penn FC opened their trip to nationals with a 2-1 win over Utah Celtic after winning the Eastern Regional with a come behind victory over local rival Eagle FC 3-1. They followed that up by overcoming a 2-0 deficit to pick up a 2-2 draw and came from behind again to win their third match to win the group and advance to the semifinal, where they won again by a 2-1 score line.
They reached the winner’s circle playing an attractive brand of soccer both in terms of their skill and movement on the field but also in how they carried themselves even when things weren’t quite going their way.
“Whenever someone isn’t doing their best we always encourage each other, we’re never trying to yell or fight on the field because that just won’t help anyone,” Katelyn said. “We always try to stay positive and encouraging.”
While the team was encouraging each other internally, plenty of external support came from their family and friends both at the games in Florida and online through the club’s Facebook page, where thousands of comments were coming through on live feeds and posts throughout the week.
“We have the best fans,” Katelyn said. “They’re always loud cheering us on and everyone watching back home and commenting really picked us up.”
Since returning home to the Harrisburg area, the team has been treated like local celebrities with news reports highlighting their history-making performance.
“When were starting this up 15-20 years ago this was never in our wildest dreams to win a national championship,” said Becher about the club that changed its name from LDC United to Penn FC when the now defunct pro team rebranded in 2018. “That wasn’t even on our radar; it was about getting good teams together and hopefully competing for state cups. So to do this is, I mean, is just huge.”
It didn’t come without hard work and hardship. Last summer as national competitions were shut down because of Covid-19 the Econ sisters were hard at work at home in Grantville dreaming together of what they might be able to accomplish.
“We worked hard for it but still out of all the teams in the nation we won,” Katelyn said. “That’s definitely something special we will never forget.”