Almost every trip that Sunshine Fontes takes as a part of the U-17 Women’s National Team involves a bit of extra effort. She hails from Wahiawa, Hawaii on the island of Oahu, and nearly every camp, domestic or international, requires additional travel to account for the extra five-hour flight from her hometown just to make it to mainland on the West Coast.
As with many previous camps, her trip to Managua, Nicaragua for the 2018 Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship took a full additional travel day. Fontes’ extra effort is evident in her flight itineraries, but the work she puts in once she steps off the plane back in Hawaii has made her an integral part of this U-17 WNT cycle.
“Sunshine has grown into a strong, incredible, assertive young woman who has started to take ownership of her development,” said U-17 WNT head coach Mark Carr. “Sometimes, it can be a challenge for a player in Hawaii to find a balance of development accelerators. What I’ve seen from Sunshine in the last two years is a young woman who has taken it upon herself to control her development and create her own environment when she’s away from camp.”
While the level of women’s soccer in Hawaii has continued to improve, only a few players from the Islands have made it to the U.S. Women’s National Teams, most notably Natasha Kai from Kahuku, who helped the senior WNT to the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing while scoring the winning goal in overtime in the 2-1 quarterfinal victory against Canada. Since then, more youth players from Hawaii have begun to earn call-ups. While players stateside have chances to play in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and other elite youth leagues week-in and week-out, those high-level opportunities come far less often in Hawaii.
Fontes first put herself on U.S. Soccer’s radar almost 5,000 miles from Wahiawa, in Boca Raton, Fla. at an Olympic Development Inter-Regional tournament. A few months later, she was called to join the U-15 Girls’ National Team for its first camp of 2016 in the second year of the team’s cycle. She’s earned call-ups to every camp since.
“I try to push myself at home, no matter how much time there is between camps,” Fontes said. “They tell me what to work on when I go home, and they’ve seen that it’s paying off so they’ve just kept bringing me back.”
Fontes has continued to find ways to reach higher levels in her game while back in Hawaii. She used to train with older players, but when those teammates graduated, she began training with boys to help work on her pace and physicality. She also takes advantage of her club environment with the Hawaii Rush.
Fontes exemplifies what Carr calls “player-driven” development. He makes frequent contact with the players to monitor their progress and sees them in camp nearly monthly, but to really progress, Carr emphasizes that players have to take control of their own development. He’s seen Fontes evolve from a player once too shy to look him in the eye to an ever-inquisitive student of the game.
“Now, we have more conversations about her growth,” Carr said. “She says ’This is something that I want, what’s the next best development environment for me? What’s the next level that’s going to help me stay in this system?’ For any young player that shows that ownership of their development, that’s gold for me. She is the one who’s driving her development process. Ultimately, that’s going to decide where she ends up.”
That work, both at home in the 50th state and across the Pacific in U.S. camps, has helped Fontes become one of the U-17s’ most lethal goal scorers. Her 11 goals in 2018 lead the team by a wide margin and her 13 goals in 19 U-17 caps also stand as the team’s best over the course of the cycle. She became the first U.S. female player to score four goals in two international games in the same year when she tallied quadruples against Venezuela and Argentina early in 2018. Those goal scoring efforts come from remarkable creativity.
“She sees pictures on the field that not all of us see,” Carr said. “What she does on the field and the creativity that she displays, it’s something as a coach you can’t teach. We encourage her to express herself and put her talent into our team. She’s a unique talent and a difference maker for us. She’s definitely got lots of things to improve upon, but her unique skillset, growth mindset and training mentality so far, is something that puts her in a very good position right now with our U-17 group.”
Fontes’ first Concacaf tournament experience came just a few months after her National Team camp debut, at the Concacaf Girls’ U-15 Championship in August 2016. She scored five goals and notched four assists in seven games during that competition, but Carr told her that she didn’t come into that camp in good enough shape. She hasn’t let it happen again since. Her work with the USA and in Wahiawa has positioned her to make an impact in Managua.
“I know what I want to do in the future,” Fontes said. “I know that in order to be here in camp, and stay here in camp, I need to always train at my top level. Mark told me my goal scoring has put me in the good place, and I’ve come in more fit to each camp. He said that I’ve improved and I think that’s kept me on the team. I’m just excited to be here and try to help our team qualify for the World Cup.”