Talented Vipers seek repeat title
HUNTINGTON -- The way the ball flows from each player's foot, you'd think they were spinning a web, each string of silk connecting neatly with the next.
It's a perfect formation. Little triangle build-ups leading to quick strikes, catching the defense napping.
The U-19 Girls FC Bucks Vipers are more than a team, they're a union of sisters, bonded strongly by the same man they've called coach since they were 11.
On February 13, 2009, John Pawlowski, a Philadelphia police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty. It was the fifth such murder in 10 months for the Philadelphia police force.
It led to a condolence letter from President Barack Obama to Pawlowski's wife and "the largest funeral in Philadelphia's history," according to one account.
John Pawlowski was the son-in-law of Ed Leigh, FC Bucks' coach.
"I have to watch because I'll get ...," Leigh said, his voice trailing off into deep emotion.
His players would surely do the same. John and Kimberly Pawlowski were an extended family for all members of FC Bucks.
"All the Vipers' parents were at their wedding," Leigh said.
The current version of the Vipers is Leigh's second team that he's coached for an extended period of time. His first one featured his daughter.
"These kids grew up watching my daughter play," Leigh said. "My first team was very, very good and (this current team) kind of idolized that gang."
So when tragedy struck Leigh's family, the Vipers opted to show their support. Players donned Pawlowski's badge number, 5649, on their uniforms.
They then went out and played inspired soccer, going 33-0-1 and took home a national championship.
It marked the end of a six-month journey that started with an ultimate low but ended with a spirited high.
"They're good kids," Leigh said. "They went through it with me.
"They were at the funeral. It was a tough year."
A month before the national championship, Kimberly Pawlowski gave birth to John III, Pawlowski's son she was four months pregnant with when her husband died at the age of 25.
So now a proud grandfather, Leigh is back at the US Youth Soccer Region I Championships with a team stock full of talent, character and heart.
His girls won their first game, 7-0, over the West Virginia Chaos.
"They're the best team I've ever coached, Leigh said. "For sure."