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NSSA Phoenix, “The Pink Team” on a mission to cure cancer

07/17/2013, 4:45pm CDT
By Ryan Lund

As thousands of young soccer players and their handlers took their places for opening ceremonies Tuesday evening, an unexpected group of celebrities set up shop in the staging area.

They might not have realized it right away, but the North Suburban Soccer Association (NSSA) 19 boys’ Phoenix, known around the National Sports Center campus as “the Pink Team,” has developed its own following at Schwan’s USA CUP.

NSSA Phoenix poses with Centro Universitario from Mexico after their match Wednesday

And while Phoenix, a team that hails from Mounds View, Minn., has performed well on the field, the team’s celebrity status is hardly an accident.

The concept that would later become the Pink Team got its start a few years ago, when NSSA player Kyle O’Connor first suggested that the squad take the unprecedented step of ditching NSSA’s trademark blue and gold in favor of a somewhat brighter shade: pink.

The request may have seemed odd to some, but head coach Richard Sonterre was on to his forward’s plan.

“Everyone thought he was kind of crazy, kind of looked at him weird,” Sonterre said. “He didn’t say why, but I kind of sensed exactly what it was.”

Kyle had recently lost his mother to a lengthy battle to thyroid cancer, an event that had an understandably profound impact on the young soccer player.

“I knew it was something about his mother,” Sonterre said, “especially having gone through cancer myself.”

Sonterre was diagnosed with Melanoma back in 1998, after a sudden phone call from his doctor changed the veteran soccer coach’s life.

“It’s one heck of a game changer,” he says, recalling the days that followed.

Sonterre’s tumor, however, was still in phase two, allowing doctors to remove the wayward growth via surgery.  Now cancer-free and 15 years removed from his ordeal, Sonterre has a personal perspective on the toll that the deadly disease can take.

His aunt, who has survived against the odds over the past two months, serves as yet another reminder.

“Every day that I get to have a conversation with her and the cancer hasn’t taken her yet, it means something,” he said.

With this fresh perspective in hand, Sonterre approached the issue with blunt enthusiasm.

“I took the path of asking for forgiveness rather than permission,” he says, referring to his squad’s disregard for club policy.  “I announced to the entire club that we were wearing pink by plastering our championship picture on the website with pink jerseys.”

Despite NSSA’s initial reluctance however, he Pink Team finally caught on.

“Not only are they supportive of this, they’re raising us up like we’re the poster child of NSSA,” he said.  “They went from being not to in favor of it a year ago, but they get it now and support it.”

But while the club took a bit of convincing, for the rest of NSSA Phoenix, the process was a bit less gradual.

“A few weeks into the season our coach had a talk with us after practice, and Kyle wanted to do this for his mom, and I thought it was really cool,” said teammate Andrew Pederson.  “We’ve all embraced it; we’ve always been there for Kyle.”

NSSA Phoenix is in its final year of competition before college and the demands of life send O’Connor, Pederson and the rest of the team their separate ways.

With their impending dissolution in mind, the boys of Phoenix have taken a new lease on soccer as the Pink Team, operating outside of league play as a tournament team.

After more than a decade together, this year’s USA CUP has a special significance for the U19 squad.

“What better way to go out than to come play in this big of a tournament, that’s this fun all week?” said Pederson.

The team’s farewell tour reached its apex on Tuesday night, when an emotional O’Connor carried the USA CUP torch along the final leg of its journey, lighting the cauldron and kicking off the 29th edition of the tournament.

As he returned to the embrace of his coach and his team, the full impact of the Pink Team’s message appeared to hit home.

“I swear that I could feel my mom’s presence around me and the whole team,” he said.  “It just felt like she was looking down on me, saying that I’m proud of you, and she gave me this moment to show that to everyone.”

The events of opening ceremonies had an impact on Sonterre and Pederson as well.

“It really started to sink in, that we were having an impact on people and that people knew about it.  The effort that USA CUP was putting into this was actually yielding a result,” Sonterre said. “People wanted to be near us and talk and hear about it, and obviously when you go through that pageantry of the opening ceremony, and being the last ones to hold and touch that torch, it was great.”

The Pink Team’s new fans kept them busy following the torch-lighting, as a number of teams were eager to catch a glimpse of the USA CUP celebrities.

“I think that we took about a million pictures,” Pederson said, “mostly girls’ teams.”

And now, as NSSA Phoenix continues its USA CUP encore, the Pink Team hopes to continue spreading the message, both on the field, and off.

“We’ve been happy to participate, and it’s turned out bigger and better than we could have ever imagined,” Sonterre said. “And we’re proud to be a part of it.”

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Tag(s): July 17, 2013