Roxbury Venom Elite thrilled to return to game they love 

By Jillian Risberg


Soccer Wire rates them seventh in the state and for two-time EDP (Elite Development Program) flight champions and MCYSA (Morris County Youth Soccer Association) flight 1 champs, playing competitive girls soccer is everything. 


The Roxbury Venom Elite has such a love for the sport and each other.

They participate in various tournaments throughout the season and always have their ‘sisters’ backs, feeling truly connected like family.  


“We congratulate each other when we get a goal or when we did a good play. We train together, we win together,” says Grace Cudnik.

Jordyn Araujo echoed Cudnik’s sentiments, saying she loves her teammates; it’s great having this group of friends. 

“We all get along and have so much fun together,” says Araujo.


That said, the team has been through a very trying past year to say the least.


“During COVID our team had to train on the computer and I hated it,” says 10-year-old Gabrielle DiBello. “I like to see people in person. When we could, we would train in driveways, garages and coach’s basement for 1500 touches as a team.”


According to assistant coach Beth DiBello, all winter some of the girls played in a tournament in Nutley organized and run by NESA (North East Soccer Association).  They took first place in that tournament and were undefeated.  

“We followed all COVID protocol and regulations provided like no parents or spectators on the field, players wearing masks to and from the field, COVID health check forms, and coaches wearing masks on the field,” DiBello says. 

And collectively they have many proud moments on the field pre-pandemic. 


According to Hannah Mullen, it has to be when they won their first Morris County flight championship their first spring season.


“Running up the side of the field past all the defenders taking a big and long shot and scoring,” Cudnick says. “I feel so proud of myself.”


Gabrielle DiBello feels equally proud.


“When I help score a goal and high-five my teammates,” she says. “That is the best feeling.”

Elyse Karol always remembers the game where her team was down 2-0 in the first half, they  went out there and played their hardest, staging a 4-2 winning comeback.   

They feel the love in Roxbury but traveling is part of the equation.


“I like playing on my home field; when I’m away I feel like it’s a strange field,” says Gabrielle DiBello. “My family always comes with me.”

Athletes often have their own pre-game rituals and must haves for game day — and the Venom girls are no exception. 


“I always make sure to wear a homemade pre-wrap headband for every game and practice,” says Mullen, who would like to try to pursue soccer, but her dream job is a lawyer.


And for Kassandra Blehl, it’s all about the gloves before she goes out there.

“After putting on my gloves I smack them together three times for good luck,” says Blehl. 


The sports icon who has influenced Karol the most plays on the US Women’s National Team. 

“I look up to Alex Morgan because of her work ethic when practicing and playing. I try to play with the same intensity as she does,” says the nine-year-old.  

That means giving it her all during twice weekly team practices now that the turf field has opened. 


“I also practice in my basement and backyard with my brother and dad on the days that I don’t practice with my team,” she says, and adds that she would love to continue playing soccer throughout college. 


“(But) my dream job is to become a designer of houses like Joanna on HGTV or to become a photographer,” says Karol. 


For Janine Charris, the soccer training schedule is intense.


“Play hard or go home,” Charris says.


The team has consistently adhered to the New Jersey Department of Health’s official COVID-19 health and safety rules for outdoor organized sports activities which resumed in June 2020. 

That initially meant modified no-contact practices for medium-risk (soccer, baseball, softball) sports. Traditional practices and competitions for medium-risk sports were allowed as of July 2020.


“All players and coaches submit the COVID health check form for every practice and game, parents and onlookers wear masks and maintain distance, coaches wear masks, and players wear masks to and from the field,” the assistant coach says.  

With so many guidelines in place, it’s important to stick to a certain diet while the team trains for the soccer season.

“I like to eat a lot of protein,” Araujo says. “I always eat a meal before practice and then another after practice.”

And the girls cherish their down time. 


“When I am not playing soccer, I usually play with my little brother Ethan. He is two-years-old and so cute and funny. I also go to my friend’s house or they come to my house,” Cudnik says.


Karol stays focused during school and prioritizes her homework before going to soccer practice.  

“So I don’t have to worry about it when I get home,” she says, adding that in her free time she enjoys playing video games, riding her bike and spending time with family and friends.


The team members all have personal stories of how they first became interested in soccer.


“My older brother played and I enjoyed watching him play,” says Karol.


It was a family affair for Gabrielle DiBello.

“I watched my older sister play and my mom and dad played, too.  It’s in my blood,” she says.


And Araujo’s mom signed her up for Mini Mites when she was just three-years-old. 

“I loved it ever since,” says the 11-year-old.   


Cudnik is a triple threat.

“Right now, I play forward — left, right and middle forward,” says the 10-year-old. “My favorite position is right forward.  I have been playing since I was five-years-old.”


Orlando Pride’s Alex Morgan started out playing soccer as a right forward, and that’s exactly where Araujo started out.  

“Alex now plays center forward and I now play right mid-field,” the 11-year-old says, adding that she doesn’t know where she will end up, but she sees soccer in her future and loves playing offense.


For Coach Jon Shluker, being a part of the girls’ lives is an honor. The team has been together more than four years now, he coached some of them in the Mighty-Mites program before travel was even a thought.


Soccer has a place in all their lives one way or another going forward and has allowed them to build good friendships, the value of teamwork, dedication and discipline.


Blake Shluker really wants to pursue the sport.


“I want to play in high school and in college,” says Shluker, who dreams of playing professionally for the US Women’s National Team. “But if that doesn’t pan-out, my second job would be a computer/video game streamer.”


Even though they’re young, the girls know who they are.

“I’m going to continue to play as long as I can,” says 10-year-old Gabrielle DiBello, acknowledging that she doesn’t think soccer is her dream job, but more like a side job… and she actually wants to become a math teacher when she’s older.


To see them grow not only as players but people is just awesome, according to Coach Jon. 

“I am always proud of the girls — their work ethic and drive is so high for their age,” he says. “They truly believe in the sense of TEAM, care about their teammates and the bond that brings them together.” 

For others their age who aspire to play soccer, the girls remind you to dedicate yourself.


“Success is no accident, it is hard work,” Charris says. “Believe in yourself and follow your dreams.” 


And giving up is not an option.


“Stick with your dream no matter what anyone says,” says Karol. “Also, be the change that you want.”


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