Players couldn’t contain excitement to be back on the field at PepsiCo Showdown in July

By Bob Narang

Soccer balls were flying through the air.

All eight fields were surrounded by spectators.

Lifesize posters of current soccer players were lined up along the fences, along with historic pictures of past stars.

Fans and players were bumping to the music of DJ Riel.

And yes, parents were complaining about the referees.

On the surface, everything looked normal during the PepsiCo Showdown Girls Community Showcase, held at Olympic Park in Schaumburg on July 18-19. Finding a close parking spot was a problem, and winning teams indulged by spraying themselves with two-liters of Pepsi a part of the Pepsi Spray Celebration.

Just a routine mid-July weekend, but it certainly wasn’t with COVID-19 cases spiking throughout the country. High school players from throughout the Chicago area were thankful for the opportunity to play again together with their friends and peers, as unique measures were taken to ensure the health and safety of all those who attended.

Playing in front of a large crowd in a heated battle against Romeoville on Field 1 on July 19, Waukegan junior Fabiola Huerta couldn’t contain her excitement over playing soccer again.

“It feels great to be out here again, because I haven’t played in a while,” Huerta said. “It feels good to be back.

“It was fun. The whole community team being back together and seeing everyone smiling was special to me.”

Over the last four months, the world has been turned upside down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the PepsiCo Showdown Girls Community Showcase served as a positive experience for youth athletes unable to play soccer this spring with their local high schools.

The two-day celebration tournament, which consisted of graduating seniors, juniors and several underclassmen, was a rousing success for all the players – especially the graduating seniors who missed their final varsity season.

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For one team, Guerin Prep, it was a memorable weekend on many levels. After 59 years, the River Grove-based private school announced it would be closing its doors amid declining enrollment on June 30.

The Gators, led by a strong group of experienced players, showed off their school pride by winning both of their PepsiCo games to win their bracket. The 14 players celebrated wearing the Guerin Prep uniform for the final time with a party-like Pepsi Spray Celebration, as Queen’s “We Are The Champions” played in the background.

Julia Cianci wrapped up a weekend to remember, scoring the winning penalty kick in both of Guerin’s matches. Plus, she and her sister, Mia, had one last hurrah playing for their father, Guerin coach Roberto Cianci.

“It was a very special weekend,” Julia Cianci said. “It felt great since the school was closing to come out with two wins to show Guerin’s sports teams are good.

“It was so sad to miss our whole high school spring season. We wanted to go out of PepsiCo with a bang.”

Meanwhile Romeoville senior forward Valeria Valles gushed with pride over helping her team continue their championship streak at PepsiCo.

“It feels so great because we won our bracket last year, too, but it feels even better being a senior knowing your team won the last game we had together,” Valles said. “It’s such an amazing feeling.

“I made sure as a leader to make sure the girls were ready for PepsiCo. It feels amazing that I got two championships in PepsiCo.”

As the Romeoville players started chanting in the center circle after beating Waukegan, midfielder Yamilet Perez made a point to hug several of her teammates.

“It’s an amazing feeling, just winning this back-to-back,” Perez said. “It’s unbelievable.

“We played great as a team, communicated and were organized. It’s pretty unbelievable to be able to play.

“Our high school season got canceled, so our hopes to play again were down until PepsiCo announced it would host something for us. We are blessed to have had this opportunity to play.”

Bio on reporter: Bob Narang has been covering prep recruiting and sports for the past 25 years. His work also appears in the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Athlon Sports and the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.