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Club quality or school glory: Young players facing tough choices

It’s been said so often that it’s become a truism: The level of elite club soccer is superior to high school – so much so that many of the nation’s top club competitions are moving to bar their players from the latter, with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy widely expected to soon rescind the exemption it currently grants those who wish to take part in high school play.

From a purely developmental standpoint, this makes sense, with top clubs able to offer levels of competition and a range of resources which are simply beyond most school programs. But in practice, the move away from high school soccer is challenging a foundational element of American teenage social life, and is already putting young players in tough, sometimes agonizing situations.

As longtime Washington, D.C.-area youth coach and league administrator Lula Bauer puts it: “There’s no question that the club will get you to the next level, but there’s nothing like hearing your name on the loudspeaker as a kid in high school, and being part of your high school team.”

Bauer coaches Lee-Mt. Vernon Soccer Club’s Under-18 Patriots side, which was overjoyed to reach the semifinals of this fall’s Virginia State Cup. But when the tournament’s final four weekend was postponed to the first week of November due to foul weather, longtime standouts Helena Barber, Ciana Puglese and Gabby Goddette were confronted with a vexing decision.

“[They] attend Bishop Ireton [High School in Alexandria, Va.] and they’re seniors. They have contributed to that program for four years. They made it through to the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] semifinal, beating the number-one ranked team in the country, Good Counsel,” Bauer explained to Potomac Soccer in an exclusive interview earlier this month. “We, on the other hand, had progressed to State Cup and we were getting ready to play in our semifinal.”

A talented team whose core has been playing together for nearly a decade, LMVSC Patriots were set for a Saturday evening State Cup semifinal against Northern Virginia rivals VISTA Omni in Midlothian, Va. A win would advance them to the championship match on Sunday afternoon, practically overlapping with the WCAC title game between Bishop Ireton and St. John’s College High School at the Maryland SoccerPlex some 140 miles to the north.

So Barber, Puglese and Goddette would have to choose one or the other – and it was killing them.

“I got a call from them on Friday evening and they’d been sitting in the car discussing this for about three hours,” explained Bauer. “You could just hear the angst in their voices about what to do.

“They said, ‘This is what we have, we’re getting a lot of pressure from our high school coach, we’re getting a lot of pressure from school, we’re getting a lot of pressure from our teammates.’”

That led to a sleepless night for Bauer, who pondered the issue and even jotted down a list of pros and cons in the predawn hours before finally making her decision. As her team was warming up for its semifinal, she approached the trio and told them they should play their hearts out in that match, then drive home to rest up for Bishop Ireton’s championship game.

“I know State Cup is so, so important, no question,” she explained, “but there’s so many things that are equally – not less, not more, but equally – important, and experiences and memories are just something that you can’t take back.

“I was a gymnast…I represented my high school at state and to this day it’s one of my fondest memories.”

With their minds cleared before gametime, Barber, Puglese and Goddette helped push the Patriots past Omni in a tight 1-0 win, then returned to the D.C. area to suit up for the Cardinals, who would up on the losing end of another close-fought 1-0 result as St. John’s took the WCAC title. Though left shorthanded, LMVSC overcame the trio’s absence, edging the Chantilly Burn in an epic penalty-kick shootout to earn State Cup glory as several Patriot reserves stepped up in a big way.

The episode underlines the complexity of an issue that ends up being about more than just soccer for the young people involved. While the club soccer environment usually produces better prospects for the college and pro levels, high school sports unites student bodies, bestowing collective pride and social status.

“It’s social, it really is social,” noted Bauer. “No matter what type of quality the program is, it’s the same social level for all the players. There’s nothing like representing your high school…It was so heart-wrenching for me for these players to be in this kind of position. I mean, they’re still kids.

“I’m not the coach or the type of person who would ever want to take that away from a kid, from their experience.”

Though they missed out on LMVSC’s stirring cup final victory, Barber, Puglese and Goddette had already proved their dedication to both school and club, and will happily rejoin the Patriots for regional competition. But the growing gulf between the two worlds looks likely to force many more teenagers into similar situations – or worse – in the months and years ahead.

[ +Click here to read more about LMVSC Patriots’ State Cup final win over Chantilly ]