Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2018

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Columnist Ron Kantowski: Girls soccer team brings home title

Ron Kantowski is sports editor of the Las Vegas Sun. Thursday columnist Steve Carp is on vacation.

Saeed Bonabian never saw any of this coming when the girls 16-under soccer team he has coached for the past seven years was invited to play in a pair of major tournaments in Holland and Norway.

He figured his squad would pick up some souvenir wooden shoes, visit a Viking museum (the real deal, not the Minnesota kind), see some fiords. If they won a few soccer games, all the better.

Make that all the best.

The Las Vegas Tabagators, comprised of 16 local teen-agers, this week went through customs with the second-place trophy from the Holland Cup and the first-place hardware from the even more prestigious Norway Cup, which attracted some 1,300 teams representing 31 countries.

The Tabagators' bracket looked like the Walton family tree. There were 92 teams in it. By comparison, the World Cup is limited to 32 teams.

The Las Vegas kids played eight games in seven days and won them all. In the championship game, the Tabagators were matched against Vaalerenga of Norway in the 28,000-seat national soccer stadium in Oslo. The local girls knew they were be going to be underdogs even before they saw all those red flags with the blue crosses.

But in a scene right out of the Rocky movies or Mia Hamm's scrapbook, most in the crowd of 8,000 were saluting the Stars and Stripes at game's end. Vanesha Bradley, who played varsity soccer at Cimarron-Memorial as a freshman last season, netted two of her tournament-leading 12 goals in the final, lifting the Yanks to a 2-1 victory, then led her teammates around the field on a victory lap.

The Norwegian crowd responded with enthusiastic cheers. The Las Vegas girls had become skoal sisters, at least for a day.

"We had a lot of followers. It was a very nice scene," said Bonabian.

The 42-year-old Bonabian is an American success story. He still looks fit enough to patrol center midfield, which he once did for the national team in his native Iran. That was back in the 1970s, "before the revolution."

When the Ayatollah literally went ballistic on the Shah, Bonabian sought refuge in the States. He went back to school, earned a Ph.D. and makes a comfortable living as an engineer at Morris Knutsen, a local construction firm.

So Bonabian, like the great majority of us, is delighted with his place in the melting pot. Ask him where his allegiance lay on the day Iran beat the U.S. in the last World Cup, and he admits to having mixed emotions. But he named his daughter (who plays on his team) Emily. It doesn't get any more American that that.

His soccer background obviously was crucial to the Tabagators bringing home the Cup, although Bonabian prefers to credit the determination of his players -- with an assist from Thor, the Norwegian God of Thunder and Warm Breezes.

Much of the tournament was played in 75-degree weather -- unseasonably cool for a bunch of desert rats from Las Vegas, but a heat wave to the Norway kids, whose closest neighbor to the west is Iceland. Enough said. When the Las Vegas girls hit the pitch in sweaters and jackets, the Norwegians knew they were in big, big trouble.