First published in the Nov. 19 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The season-opener for the Burbank High School varsity girls’ soccer team was quite different under first-year head coach Alan Simon. Instead of a typical nonleague match that would mean virtually nothing in the long run this early in the campaign, the Bulldogs were playing for something greater than themselves — and a nice, shiny trophy.
With the help of Sacred Heart of Jesus High of Los Angeles, the two schools hosted the inaugural Wil Gutierrez Friendship Cup, named after Simon’s close friend who is battling liver cancer.
“Just a month ago Wil was diagnosed with a liver cancer, and this is an absolute gem of a human being. I can’t even describe what a great friend he is. He is an amazing human, a great dad and a brilliant athlete,” Simon said. “I tried doing something a little bit special for him to know that his friendship means the world to me. I thought this could be a bit of an inspiration as well.”
The goal was to raise awareness for liver cancer with the American Liver Foundation. However, Simon also wanted to promote friendship and sorority among the schools’ soccer teams on the pitch, which was the underlying goal when the cup game idea was first conceived.
“I decided to do a cup for this game anyway, just to have this friendship going between these two high schools, which I think is very important in the modern soccer world,” Simon said. “We come out here and we battle and we foul each other and, you know, things happen on the pitch. But outside of the pitch, these girls have to realize that they are a sorority and a sisterhood.”
Although Burbank posted a dominant 4-1 victory, Simon said the result didn’t matter. Win or lose, both participating programs received an identical Friendship Cup trophy, underscoring Simon’s message.
Sophomore standout Maneh Nersesyan, a member of Armenia’s under-17 national team, had an excellent game with a pair of goals in the 34th and 48th minutes. Meanwhile, senior Valerie Ardon and junior Emma Batista each scored a goal.
“Maneh’s just a wonderful player and absolutely a professional,” Simon said. “She actually scored two goals for the Armenian national team in European competition.”
Simon brings 22 years of experience to Burbank with a different coaching style and the goal of sending kids off to play in college and beyond. Simon said when league play begins, several players from area schools know each other despite battling for a league title on the pitch. And that’s how the idea of a friendship cup was born.
“At the end of the day, these are kids who want to play soccer. It’s a nonleague game, why not promote friendship?” Simon said. “It’s literally this big sorority that I want to put the focus on. It’s a bit of a small world, and then the Friendship Cup was born out of that.”
Simon said the goal is to continue this tradition every year to start the season. With enough traction, Simon hopes the Friendship Cup at Burbank continues to keep the spirit of friendship, positivity and sorority intact.
For more information on the American Liver Foundation, visit liverfoundation.org.