What’s the goal? Prep soccer faces by-law change

By Bill Paterson
bpaterson@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Apr. 26, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 26, 2010 – 11:42 am
Rachel Mercik and Jen Ericson compete for high school and top Bay Area club teams simultaneously during the spring – Mercik for Oak Ridge High and the Mountain View/Los Altos Soccer Club and Ericson for Christian Brothers and the San Ramon Shock.

Not a day goes by, it seems, without a game or practice for the college-bound seniors, who travel hundreds of miles this time of year to compete for their respective teams, a routine that could end if a CIF bylaw is revised.

It’s a revision – spurred by a turf war between Bay Area high school and club programs – that area soccer supporters claim is unwise, unnecessary and possibly legally tenuous.

“I’m very, very against it,” said Mercik, who will play at Cal in the fall on scholarship and also is on the United States U-20 Women’s National Team. “They are trying to take the high school experience away from club players.”

Said Ericson, who will attend Utah on a soccer scholarship: “I think it will be wrong if we have to choose club over our classmates. Club helps us take it to the next level, but we’re also teenagers. … High school lights it up for us.”

Under CIF rules, only players who compete during the winter – the federation’s official season of soccer – are restricted from playing club soccer during the high school season. Schools that compete during the fall or spring are exempt.

That exemption might be dropped, however, when the Federated Council votes May 7 in Sacramento.
Unlike other high school sports that have clearly defined seasons, CIF soccer is balkanized. In Southern California, all four sections play boys and girls soccer in the winter because of the mostly dry weather. In Northern California, sections spread out their soccer seasons because of weather and field issues and referee availability.

The Sac-Joaquin Section plays boys soccer in the fall and girls soccer in the spring. But the North Coast Section, which includes schools from the Bay Area up to near the Oregon border, has girls teams that play in the fall, winter and spring, and boys teams that play in the fall and winter.

Complicating matters is that most high-level club programs at the high school-age level are largely year-round endeavors, and some of the most prestigious events, such as the California Youth Soccer Association-North State Cup and Association Cup, are held in the spring.

It’s the Bay Area Conference of the NCS, a 28-team small-school league, that is pushing for the exemption to be lifted.

It argues that dual-team players are overextending themselves and getting injured.

“We have some kids playing 10 soccer games in a week,” BAC commissioner Tom Welsh said. “The injury rate has skyrocketed.

“I know we’ll lose some good players who will choose to play club, and we could have some schools that might not be able to have a soccer program, but at least our kids will be safe.”

Former Davis High School girls soccer coach Ashley Yudin has dealt with the issue himself and understands Welsh’s frustration, but he thinks there is a better way than taking the radical step of changing a CIF bylaw. A change could have a ripple effect on hundreds of schools in Northern California, especially the 154 schools playing spring soccer in the Sac-Joaquin Section.

“If that gets passed, it’s going to open a whole other can of worms,” said Yudin, who now coaches the Davis High boys team in the fall and is coaching director of the Davis Legacy Soccer Club.

Yudin said cooperation is the best way for the CIF to resolve conflicts between club and high school programs, something that already is happening among some clubs and schools in the area.

Some high-level competitive clubs, including Davis, have gone on hiatus during the spring so their players can focus exclusively on the high school season.

Davis girls coach Allen Carlson has noticed a remarkable change since the switch.

“I remember how stressful it was for the kids having to go from my practice and rush to their club practices to get ready for State Cup,” he said. “It seemed like every year we’d be in the section playoffs and some of our best players were injured because they were playing so much.

“Since we made the move, we’re having better practices, and the girls are having more of a social life. … They are a lot more relaxed.”

St. Francis senior Caitlin Clark appreciates the break from club.

She said last year’s St. Francis team endured lots of injuries, and she battled sore hamstrings throughout the season because of so many games and practices as a dual-team player.

Clark, who lives near Elk Grove, sometimes played up to five matches a week and at least twice a week had club practices in Folsom – all that plus her high school practices/games and homework.

“It’s easier to enjoy playing soccer now,” said Clark, who will attend Emory University in Atlanta on a soccer scholarship and whose club team in Loomis doesn’t resume practice until after the section championships in late May. “It’s never a chore to play because it’s so much fun. But it’s nice when your body doesn’t ache all the time.”

Still, the majority of area players must make a choice if the bylaw is changed.

Oak Ridge coach Henry Reis also coaches a U-18 girls club team for the El Dorado Soccer Club, so all his club and most of his high school players play on two teams at the same time.

“It’s a touchy subject, and I have mixed feelings,” Reis said. “High school gives them a little freedom, a little break to have some fun.”

That’s why in his experience it’s rare that a high-level player bypasses high school exclusively to play club.

So Reis tries to balance his high school and club schedules to avoid burning out his players.

“You have to compromise a bit,” he said.

If they were forced to make a choice, Mercik and Ericson said they would drop high school – but it would hurt.

Mercik skipped her first two years of high school while focusing on Olympic Development Program and club commitments. But the lure of playing with her classmates was too much to pass up. She helped Oak Ridge win the Division II section championship last season.

“I know some club coaches who just say, ‘It’s only high school,’ ” Mercik said. “But we’ve got a good team, Henry is a good coach, and I’m still learning every day. I’m always getting a smarter soccer brain, whether it’s high school, indoors or competitive.”

While in her pursuit of a soccer scholarship last season, Ericson passed on playing for her high school and thoroughly missed it.

“While it’s more fun and less pressure than club, playing high school is just as much about heart, passion and school pride,” she said.

“I think it will be wrong if we have to choose club over our classmates. Club helps us take it to the next level, but we’re also teenagers. … High school lights it up for us.”

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