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Raptors experience soccer in the Caribbean

The girls of the local U17 ’98 Raptors travel soccer team were able to experience soccer internationally May 23-30.

Seven team members took a cruise on the Carnival Breeze from Florida to the Caribbean Islands to play in the 2015 Caribbean International Friendlies with local teams. The team visited St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico and Grand Turk, winning both of their games against teams from St. Kitts and Grand Turk.

They beat St. Kitts 4-3 and outscored Grand Turk 2-1.

Participating team members included Laura Upton and Emily McNeill of Decatur, Mary Cathren Thrasher and Peyton Dean of Austin, Kaitlyn Thompson and Madison Slaten of Hartselle and Jill Paulin of Priceville. They played 6-on-6 games on a short with one substitute each during both games.

They funded the trip with help from local businesses and individuals.

This was the first time the team was able to make the trip work, but they had the idea last year.

“We talked about figuring out a cruise down to my home of St. Kitts and other nearby islands a year before we actually got it to happen,” said head coach Jason Grey. “We found a cruise that included St. Kitts and then looked for other teams to play on the other islands included in the cruise. I talked to the people I knew at St. Kitts to set up a game and started looking for other connections at the other islands.”

The team was surprised with their success in the friendlies.

“I really thought we would get destroyed,” Upton said. “We were happy to find out that we matched up pretty well.”

“The St. Kitts women’s league has only been around for four years, but we played teams that can hold their own within their leagues,” Grey said. “We have a really great team of girls, and I think our girls could excel in these international leagues. They are already excelling in our league, and I’m very proud of them.”

The girls were also able to play a little recreational soccer on the boat.

“They would have 4-on-4 tournaments in an outdoor gym while we were at sea,” Grey said. “We were able to have some fun and participate in those. Our girls were playing grown men and young guys, but they kept pace with them and even saw some success. One team came in second.

The international travel was new to most of the girls, but they enjoyed their experience.

“This trip was something I may never get to do again once I’m no longer on this team, but it was so much fun,” Paulin said. “The games were a great experience for us, and we loved the cruise and islands too. The cruise had amazing food and lots of entertainment. Everything was wonderful, and there was so much to do we didn’t even have time for it all.”

“While on the islands we were able to tour the beaches, gardens, forests and towns,” Thompson said. “We spent one day on each island. My favorite island was St. Kitts because it was absolutely beautiful. We got to see the Brimstone Hill and their botanical gardens. At St. Maarten, we saw the most dangerous airport in the world where there are videos of people hanging on to a fence at the beach while jet streams blast them into the air when they take off.”

The team was able to meet their coach’s family for the first time and see their coach’s homeland.

“Jason’s family treated us so well,” said Thompson’s mother April Thompson. “They cooked us so much local food and showed us around the island. They really made us feel at home, and we were so grateful of their hospitality. We could tell he was very glad to introduce his players to his parents because those girls mean a lot to him.”

Grey said it was nice to finally have his parents meet the girls he talked about a lot. He travels home about twice a year for two weeks, but he was happy to bring some of his team with him during this short trip.

Even though the team thought their season was over, they will be representing Alabama at the regional President’s Cup this weekend in Lafayette, La. They were runners-up at the state tournament earlier in the season and recently found out that the state winner was unable to attend, so they were the next to qualify.

Teams from south Texas all the way to North Carolina will be competing in the President’s Cup.

While the Raptors did not reclaim their state championship from last year, they had winning records in both tournament play and state play. They had one first place and two second place finishes in tournaments this season.

DeLayne Dean is the team manager.