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No doubt club soccer has changed prep landscape

Review the teams that have reached the Class 4A girls soccer title game in the past few years and a trend appears.

Since 2007, only teams from the KingCo Conference the South Puget Sound League have played in the finals. A cyclical trend? Maybe. However, not coincidentally, the strongest club soccer teams in the state are headquartered in those areas.

Like it or not, club soccer has emerged a major player in high school girls soccer. And Crossfire Premier Soccer Club, located in Redmond, and Washington Premier Football Club, based in Puyallup, have helped elevate prep teams in their regions.

“Clubs allow a lot of girls to come in with a skill set,” said Tahoma High coach Jason Johnson, who guided the Bears to the 4A state finals last fall. “We can devote a lot of time at practices to working on tactical things.”

School teams have benefited from the coaching athletes receive from club programs, but the relationship hasn’t always been smooth. Up until a few years ago, the club and high school seasons overlapped and girls would sometimes miss high school games to attend club tournaments. That left some prep coaches resentful.

“There was contentiousness early on, especially when the club season and high school season were at the same time,” said Bellarmine Prep coach Joe Waters, who’s also the coaching director at Harbor FC.

With the girls club soccer season beginning in mid-November – after the high school season ends – Beamer coach Joel Lindberg said he hasn’t had a bad experience with club teams and coaches.

“From my experience there’s no real conflict or animosity,” the third-year coach said. “There has been a little talk about certain clubs not wanting their kids to play in high school. That comes down to what the kids and parents want.”

For some students, the choice is difficult, but obvious. Club soccer is a powerful lure, offering players exposure to college coaches at elite tournaments, increasing the possibility of securing a scholarship. Since the club soccer calendar changed a few years ago, this has mostly ceased being an issue for girls, but it still rages in boys soccer, where the club and high school schedules overlap.

Some clubs have told boys that they cannot compete for their high school and others mandate that they must commit to playing in club tournaments during the high school season. That has left some high school teams shorthanded for their biggest games. In 2010, Federal Way star Kelyn Rowe missed the 4A state semifinals for a club tournament and the Eagles lost. One year earlier, a loaded Stadium team, favored by many to win the state title, was knocked out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals when six starters were at a club tournament in Florida.

Despite the occasional overlap in the boys season, Waters said he believes high school teams are stronger because of club soccer.

“For us,” he said, “the strength of the club system helps all of the high school teams.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in KingCo. Until Eastlake won the 4A title in 2002, the conference had not sent a team to the championship game since 1993. Then, beginning in 2006, the league claimed four consecutive state titles.

The emergence of the KingCo teams, particularly Eastlake, Issaquah and Skyline, coincides with a proliferation of soccer clubs in that area, which has experienced tremendous population growth since the mid-1990s.

“Issaquah, Eastlake, Skyline – a lot of the players are Crossfire kids,” Waters said. “No wonder the scales are tipping in their favor.”

Skyline, which won back-to-back 4A titles in 2008 and 2009, reached the semifinals last fall. Eastlake claimed the 4A championship in 2007, a year after advancing to the semifinals. Issaquah reached the 3A finals in four consecutive seasons (2004-2007), winning three, and faced Skyline in the 2009 4A finals.

Those are the kind of résumés West Central District teams previously put together. Federal Way won back-to-back titles in the early-1990s. Bellarmine Prep has won more 4A titles than any team (five), but has not played in a final since 2004. Tahoma has recently emerged as a soccer powerhouse, winning titles in 2001 and 2005 and reaching the final last fall, losing to Kentwood in a shootout.

However, the West Central District is far from being down.

“West Central District,” Waters said, “is certainly very, very competitive.”

High school teams aren’t the only ones benefiting from the club/high school soccer relationship. The players might be the ultimate winners, said Scott Halasz, a Washington Premier coach.

“We have a roster of about 18 and not everyone can play equal minutes,” he said. “Some kids get more playing time in high school and their confidence increases, which is a huge benefit for the kids. They come back and you see a change, they’re brimming with confidence.”

Doug Pacey: 253-597-8271 doug.pacey@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/preps

FOUR STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

SOUTH KITSAP COULD CHALLENGE BELLARMINE PREP

It used to be that Bellarmine Prep, with a roster full of talented players and a great coaching staff, could be penciled in as Narrows League champion before the season even started. Nothing has changed about the Lions, but they’ll have to overcome some obstacles in their quest for a fifth straight regular-season league title. Led by junior forward Becca Schoales, one of the top players in the country, South Kitsap is a contender to unseat Bellarmine Prep. And Gig Harbor, with the same defensive unit together for a third year in a row, will be tough to score on.

BEAMER AND EMERALD RIDGE CLASS OF SPSL SOUTH

Over the past few seasons, Beamer and Emerald Ridge have been the dominant teams in the SPSL South. That hasn’t changed – the Titans and Jaguars are still league-title contenders and a favorite will emerge tonight when Emerald Ridge travels to Beamer – but they’ll be pushed by Curtis, Federal Way and Puyallup. All three return experienced squads, especially Puyallup, which welcomes back five returning starters from a state-qualifying team.

CAN KENTWOOD CONQUER ALL AGAIN?

After battling injuries throughout the 2010 regular season, Kentwood returned to full strength in the playoffs and claimed its first girls soccer state championship. With a roster that includes six returning starters and 16 lettermen, can the Conquerors make another deep run? Kentwood will face stiff competition in the SPSL North from Tahoma, the team it defeated in a shootout in the state finals. The Bears have five starters back, including talented midfielder Brie Hooks, who had 20 assists last fall, and forward Cassidy Richmond, who scored 13 goals.

BREAKING DOWN CLASS 3A

Bonney Lake enjoyed a breakthrough season last fall, reaching the Class 3A state title game. Despite graduating Savanna Moorehouse, The News Tribune’s All-Area Girls Soccer Player of the Year, the Panthers are stocked with experienced players and should be a major factor in the postseason. They’ll have to fend off a challenge from league-mate Auburn Mountainview, which opened the season with a confidence-boosting win over Kennedy Catholic. Capital, with five all-league players returning, should be a force in the Narrows League. Adriana Montes, who played at the University of Oregon, takes over coaching duties for the Cougars. Keep an eye on Decatur, too. Despite opening the season with losses to three talented teams – Kennedy Catholic, Fife and Capital – the Gators have eight starters back from a team that reached the state quarterfinals.

Doug Pacey, staff writer

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