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Select soccer on the rise
Four different teams make the top league in the state next year.
Members of the Bainbridge FC girls U17 soccer team - those that were not on vacation or participating in other activities - got back on the practice fields at the high school last Wednesday after a two week break.
As they performed drills in the waning moments of the sun under the constant direction of coach Phil Avison, coach Peter Kepler talked about how quickly everything came together for them as a team after their formation.
They've just jelled really well together, he said.
Thanks to their unity, Bainbridge FC qualified to play in the third division of the Washington State Youth Soccer Association Premier League, where many of the top select soccer programs do battle, back in June.
It's the second year in a row that they've made it into the third division.
The WSYSA Premier League operates like the English football league system, where 140 teams are separated by 24 different levels and can move up or down a level depending on their success in their division or league.
The most well-known level is the top level known as the Barclays Premier League, which has 20 teams - including world renowned squads such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal - competing for the Premier League trophy.
For the WSYSA Premier League, there are 24 teams separated into three levels, with the first division holding the top eight teams in the state.
There's also a fourth and fifth division which work as developmental leagues.
The GU17 team joins the GU14 team, coached by Grant Clark and Tuan Nguyen (who qualified for the first division in June as well), the GU15 team coached by Tom Weed and Avison and the boys' BU18 team coached by Paul Aussendorf and Avison that will compete in the league for the upcoming season.
The GU17 team is one of two teams made up of mainly Bainbridge players (the GU14 Azzurri is the other) but the GU17 team also consists of players from two different age-level teams that combined two years ago when they lost too many players, forcing them to combine into one team.
The decision to combine left the coaches wondering if they could come together as a unit before the league placement tournament.
We didn't think we'd have much of a chance because it was only six weeks away from when the team was formed, Kepler said. Half the team was playing up (several players were on a GU15 team the year before) and the players didn't know each other.
There was a lot of reasons why we thought we'd be good eventually but not right away. But they came together.
The girls struggled at first, scoring just one goal at their first tournament.
But they improved enough to take home the title at Viking Cup a few weeks later.
The GU17 team - then playing as a GU16 team - then won six out of seven games at the league placement tournament in Bellingham, including the last five games they played in a row.
It was an unbelievable achievement for us, Avison. The last four games, they just clicked into another gear.
It made them the first team to qualify for the WSYSA Premier League with all Bainbridge players, as the previous nine teams from Bainbridge that had made it into the league had several players from off-island that played on the team.
Avison, who in addition to his duties as the Director of Player Development for Bainbridge FC also coaches several teams, said it was a big deal.
We got (the) best of the older age (girls) and the younger age (girls) and they've done really well, he said. To do it with all island girls, it's pretty phenomenal.
They've put in a lot of hard work. It's all due to them.
They just went out and did it, Kepler said. It all came together at (the) LPT.
I think it was a surprise to everyone but the kids, because they didn't know they would take a while to gel.
They just got a lot of confidence and got stronger and stronger and wouldn't be denied.
But co-captain Lauren Tyner said even the players were a bit surprised by how they did.
I don't think we expected much because it was two completely different groups, she said. (But) I think we meshed a lot better that we thought we would, which is nice, because we play as a team now.
But once they got into Premier League play, it was a whole different world, as they had to get used to a faster game with bigger and stronger players, with tough matchups in every game.
It's a lot faster, co-captain Mallory Farrar said. It almost feels like there's another player out there.
There's no semi-committed teams that take part in the Premier League, Avison said. They're firing on all cylinders. If you've just got 90 percent (committed), you can forget turning out. It really is that tough to get in. It's the best athletes out there.
Avison recalled a story that emphasized how much of a difference they faced when midfielder Hallie Swan - then 13 - got a first-hand look at their opponent's size when she was matched up against a girl that was several inches taller than she was.
When they sat down and we saw how big they were, we said We're not playing them, are we?' Avison said. And it was announced that we were. Just by the physical presence of them, we were blown away.
But the girls quickly adapted to the style of play and finished the season with the best record in the second half of the season.
Avison said playing both select and for the high school team - many of the girls were on the JV and varsity teams for Bainbridge - helped their development as well.
They've got to play against 18-year-old girls (for high school), he said. (But) now none of these girls will shirk (away from anyone now.) They don't recognize a bigger girl. They think of her as just another player.
The GU17 team also thinks of themselves as just players, without the age difference or anything else coming into play.
Everyone became friends regardless of age, Tyner said.
Kepler said it was their easygoing attitude and collective sense of humor helped as well.
The girls formed bonds thanks to spending time together through practice, games and the constant travel to various tournaments around the state.
Avison said he's known and worked with the group for several years as they played with other teams, but they did wonder how they would do if they combined as a team for select play.
We weren't sure how they would gel as a team (and) as people, he said. Going in, that was the biggest concern. Would these girls click on a social level? But that happened.
From a soccer perspective, we never had any doubts (they wouldn't play well.)
Thanks to the team's success at this year's LPT and various tournaments - they won the Bigfoot tournament and were finalists in the Diadora Seattle Cup and the Snohomish United Invitational tournament - they're ranked number nine in the state for all GU17 teams by gotsoccer.com, an independent website that ranks the top club teams in the nation and in each state.
Kepler, who got into coaching several years ago and is coaching his first select team, said that taking part on a select team is now a year round process thanks to the rule change that moved the start of the season to February through April instead of September through December.
There's a lot more commitment, he said. You play a lot more tournaments aside from just your league season.
The commitment to a select team under the old schedule also meant having to take away time from playing for the high school team.
There's a lot of injuries and (with select soccer added in) they're playing seven days a week, Kepler said. Frankly, high school coaches didn't want to give them a rest, even if they knew they had a game on Sunday.
So they would work them every day and then we would play on Sunday and it was just too much.
Not only is the commitment big for the players and parents there's a code of conduct that all players must sign and abide by - it's big for the coaches as well.
Both Kepler and Avison have to manage many things off the field, from making out schedules to making sure their players have uniforms to handling fees (the average cost for each player to play is $500, not including the select registration fee charged by BIYSC, travel costs and other miscellaneous expenses) to taking care of registration and making hotel arrangements.
That kind of stuff adds up, Kepler said, noting that Hallie's mom, Lynn, is the team manager and keeps track of all the finances. But that's why it's nice to have Phil and I share that load.
Even with the commitments they must make, Farrar said the girls don't think of playing on the team as work.
I just think it's really fun, she said. I never feel like going to practice
is a chore. I have so many friends on the team and we always have fun.
I never have a bad soccer practice. We work hard but it's always fun so it's really exciting.
Tyner said they enjoy traveling to the various tournaments.
It's actually fun staying in hotels, staying up late -- and getting kicked out of pools, she said.
Farrar said they also enjoy shopping at the various towns they travel to.
While they like going to various malls in different places and getting to play the sport they love nearly year-round, the rise in the popularity of select soccer in the country and having the best athletes playing against each other means more attention from college coaches looking for their next top recruit.
That means players must make a tough choice when they take time away from their high school teams to play in tournaments around the nation.
The most notable example was in 2006 when three girls from Eastlake High School in Sammamish missed the state tournament semis and finals because they were away in Florida at a tournament with their select team.
Issaquah star Kate Deines, who was named the Gatorade State Player of the year last season, had to miss the 3A state title game as a sophomore when her U.S. National U16 coaches wouldn't let her take a flight back for the game.
She was able to stay for the Eagles' title game this year as they beat Seattle Prep for the championship.
Courtney Bell, a 2006 graduate of BHS, didn't play for the high school team for her last two years because of conflicts with her select team and playing for the state Olympic Development Program team.
She was recruited by many schools that saw her play in various tournaments and is currently a sophomore at the University of Illinois.
But while there was a college coach who did come to one of their games, both Farrar and Tyner said they don't worry about performing for college coaches.
I don't think there's added pressure, Tyner said. We're playing for fun.
I'd be surprised if more than two people on the team wanted to go play in college, Farrar said.
Tyner also said that the team was supportive of the two players that were getting the attention from the coach in Hannah Tresegar and Devon Denis.
Everyone was really supportive of the people he chose, she said. It wasn't like there was any conflict between the two players
and the rest of the team.
Avison said the amount of soccer scholarships available isn't many.
There are some out there, he said. But they're few and far between.
It's great that a college recruiter came to talk to players, but we don't sit down and say You've got to work hard because you've got the opportunity to be recruited.
Most of these girls, they're 14, 15. They've got plenty of time before making that decision.
While college may be in the future for most of the girls, the current focus is preparing for the next two tournaments, then the high school season and the Premier season.
Avison said that with the season change, they'll be scrambling to find space on the fields to practice and he'll have to deal with his work visa, as the native of Blackburn, Lancashire, England doesn't have one that's year round.
But he said the girls are committed, noting that many of them showed up to practice through the terrible winter weather last year.
He also thinks they'll advance to the next level in the game, despite the size of their select program as compared to bigger select programs around the state.
I'd be very surprised if they don't finish first, he said. That's how confident I am.
There isn't a challenge that they haven't taken on and beaten. Not one.
Kepler said the goal is for the team to take first and move up into the second division for next year.
Farrar and Tyner feel the team will achieve that goal - especially with the schedule change.
It's almost easier, because last year we had soccer almost every day of the week for three months, she said. It'll make February through April a lot more exciting.
I think we'll do alright, Tyner said. We'll do a lot better than last year.
We've definitely stepped it up a lot.