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Rampone leads Sky Blue FC to brink of WPS title

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Worst to first stories rarely happen, but when they do, it usually happens from one season to the next. To go from last to first in the same season is an even more remarkable and rare sporting accomplishment, especially when it's accompanied by two coaching changes, injuries to your star forward and illnesses to key components of your defense. But the worst-to-first finish is something Sky Blue FC, New Jersey's team in Women's Professional Soccer, will have the opportunity to accomplish when they step out onto the field in the WPS Championship presented by MedImmune against the Los Angeles Sol on Saturday, August 22. On May 25, nine weeks into the inaugural season of WPS and one day after suspending head coach and general manager Ian Sawyers, Sky Blue FC sat seventh — dead last — in WPS with a 1-4-2 record. The team subsequently relieved Sawyers of his duties and named Kelly Lindsey interim coach. Lindsey brought the team back into playoff contention, leading the team to a winning record under her tutelage and providing what seemed to be renewed stability. But Sky Blue FC's roller coaster season took another surprise turn. With the team on the cusp of the playoffs, Lindsey and Assistant Coach Joe Dorini resigned on July 29th without explanation. With only 10 days left in the regular season, team management turned to their most veteran player and U.S. Women's National Team captain, Christie Rampone and said: "Will you coach the team?" The answer didn't take long. "It was easy to accept. It was for the good of the team," she said. Just 2 weeks after undergoing emergency abdominal surgery for a ruptured ovarian cyst, Rampone added the title of Sky Blue FC coach to her list of duties along with star defender, team captain and... mom. Now, after three wins in four games including two road victories in the WPS Playoffs, Rampone has led her team to the cusp of the inaugural WPS Championship just a win away from being called 2009 WPS Champion. And these wins have come with star forward Natasha Kai coming off the bench as she continues to nurse an on-going shoulder injury and an illness and knee injury to starting keeper Jenni Branam. But through it all, Sky Blue FC has persevered. "The girls have been amazing all season from starting off with a losing record to battling back to making it to the last game of the season to making it into the playoffs — we fought the whole way through," said Rampone. "It just shows the leadership on this team and the character of this team and we're here to play." Sky Blue FC's character showed in their First Round playoff victory over a Washington Freedom side that had won four of five coming in. After taking a lead midway through the second half, the Freedom responded 15 minutes later for an equalizer. But Sky Blue FC did not wilt under the 92 degree heat in Maryland. Instead, they responded with a game-winning goal six minutes later. "Bottom line is I think these girls know what their role is. They are professional athletes and they're here to get the job done on the field." Rampone was praised for making two substitutions in the second half that led to goals, but she insists it's just her approach to the game that counts. "Its just working on the things we need to do and just staying positive, making sure these girls have the passion for the game. I want all of them to be confident. I've always had a little side of me that wanted to coach but I just didn't know what level to be honest," she said. "I've done some coaching on the side but I never thought my coaching job would be at the professional level." And she insists it's just short term. "I am enjoying it and having a lot of fun with it but I definitely think it's something that will bring me through the rest of the season but not into next year." Four days later, Sky Blue FC were at it again. The team traveled to Saint Louis and got the job done in the Super Semifinal. Dominating possession in the first half against the surging Saint Louis Athletica, Sky Blue FC overcame some remarkable saves by Hope Solo to take a 1-0 lead. Then in the second half, the New Jersey side held off an Athletica onslaught late in the game to move into Saturday's WPS Championship. "You can't control anything off the field and that's why I'm so proud of these girls. They control what they can control and that's playing on the field and working for each other and taking it day by day. And this team has been very exceptional and I'm looking forward to playing with them next year." Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's final, next year's Sky Blue FC head coach - whoever that may be - will no doubt have a tough act to follow.