Soccer’s turf war: Clubs, schools continue to jostle for talent

Centennial’s Teryl Nathe (#22) watches as Willow Canyon’s Madison Garcia (#4) takes a shot at goal Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise. Garcia is only playing club soccer this year. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

With some exception where relationships are warm, local high school sports programs and club sports have, by and large, developed an uneasy true.

It is fairly easy in sports like baseball, basketball, softball and volleyball, where the club and high school seasons are in opposite times of the year. Only soccer faces an overlap between club and high school games.

In the last-decade plus, this has caused top Valley soccer players to leave their high school teams, suddenly join or rejoin high school teams their senior year — maybe even at midseason — or skip high school soccer entirely.

In the last year, some clubs in the area decided to complete in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) for most of the year and have asked their high school players to pick one or the other. Kendra Melbye has coached the Willow Canyon program in Surprise for 12 years and during that time the Wildcats have been one of — if not the — top program in the Northwest Valley.

“When I first started coaching here it was more the Sereno club kids that wouldn’t play high school at all, they would only play club. That is why we missed out on having Ariana Romero play here at Willow. She was a four-year player at Nebraska and currently plays for the Mexico national team,” Melbye stated in an email. “Really the biggest change this year has been the ECNL clubs are asking their kids to not play high school due to the change the AIA made the previous end of the school year.”

She is referring to the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s decision at the end of the 2016-17 season to allow all sports to practice throughout the year.

Melbye lost her top player the last two seasons, senior midifielder Danielle Egharevba — the 2015-16 West Valley Preps player of the year — and promising sophomore forward Madison Garcia. Egharevba plays for the SC del Sol club’s ECNL team and Garcia for the Scottsdale Blackhawks.

“I first heard right when I came back to school because both MJ and Danielle said they were choosing club. Danielle was more torn, but she plays on a very high level club but she also didn’t want to make her club coach mad. Plus her father told my assistant coach that they went from paying over $5,000 for club to zero, so obviously these clubs were doing all they could to keep these kids year round,” Melbye stated. “How can you argue with paying such a huge amount less money wise. MJ was hurt a lot of last season so her impact has not been felt as much but she is a good speedy forward so she certainly could have made an impact this season for us. Danielle was our go to for 50/50 ball she had great field presences and just is a game changer as a player.”

Down the street in Surprise, Shadow Ridge is emerging in girls soccer. The Stallions earned the No. 16 seed for the play-in tournament last winter before losing 1-0 to Verrado – despite being without injured star player Mari Labansat.

Last year, the Stallions relied on junior Jordan Lafferty and sophomore Rachel Young to pick up the scoring slack.

But any dreams of teaming up this attacking trio were dashed quickly, Gray said. Young is an SC del Sol player and warned her coach about the club’s ambitions.

“This has only affected one player in our program- Rachel Young. She began telling me about it during the 2016-17 season because her club team was seeking to move up competitively. So for me it was not a shock that she didn’t try out for our team,” Gray stated in an email. “It makes things difficult because we obviously want the best players from our school to be on the field for us, and Rachel is definitely one of our best players. At the same time we have to compete with who shows up. The situation also puts players in a difficult position, having to choose between club and high school. I think that if it is handled correctly everyone can live with the decisions that are made.”

Gray also said Young is the team manager this year, and there are no hard feelings from coaches or players about her decision. She misses practices and games when she has club obligations, but felt that it would be good for her and the girls to have her continue to be a part of our program, just in a different capacity.

He said, as far as he knew, some clubs were planning to join the ECNL before the AIA year-round decision

“Since I have been coaching soccer I have always heard about this animosity between club and high school coaches. I’m not sure that it actually exists, but I think it would be nice for coaches to work together, sharing training and coaching ideas to better everyone. Everyone would benefit from that: coaches, club teams, high school teams, and especially the players,” Gray stated.

Liberty’s Maya Lorenzana (#9) scores a goal against Kellis on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017 at Raymond S. Kellis High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Liberty is a Northwest Region rival and has a first-year girls coach in Kyle Pooler. he has coached soccer in some fashion, be it boys or girls, for more than 20 years.

Pooler stated in an email that he thinks it is much better now, because before they could play with their club and then come back to high school in January. At least now players make a decision and stick with it.

He admitted that finding a solution that is best for players, schools, clubs and administrators is difficult.

“I really think it is difficult to say. Some of the club coaches do it for their only job and when high school rolls around they lose two months of income. So they do not want to lose that,” Pooler stated. “Also, there are big club showcase tournaments over the winter and they use these to tell the kids this is the way to get recruited. I think the Hamilton tourney over break is a good college showcase and we get a lot of colleges out there watching. I know a few college coaches that prefer to watch the kids play on their high school team that is not so loaded to see how well they help their teammates.”

Pooler and Melbye were on opposite sides this offseason, in terms of their players’ choices.

At first, it appeared he would not get to coach junior forward Maya Lorenzana and Skye McMillan this year. Lorenzana plays for club Sereno.

Pooler stated that both players wanted to play at the next level and they felt it would be best to stay with their club team in order to get the best looks from colleges originally, but both decided to stay and play for the Lions.

Melbye stated that she supports club soccer, as it is what feeds high school programs. She hopes, however, that the Arizona Interscholastic Association allows more flexibility for club players to join school teams later in the season.

“I just wish that the AIA would consider allowing these elite club kids a chance to do both — extend the timeline or cut off date when club has to end. We don’t want to burn them out, clearly, but club is club none of their friends or school sees them play and its almost an individual thing out there working for you to get that look from a college,” Melbye stated. “Playing high school builds more what they will be in college, playing and representing your school. They are both extremely beneficial in my opinion so we need to work together and not make these kids have a choice between the two. They are only kids once they should enjoy that process.”

Sunrise Mountain’s James Hansen (#2) passes the ball up the field against Cactus on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017 at Cactus High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

The same paradigm exists in boys soccer, and the Sunrise Mountain team benefited every bit as much, as Willow Canyon’s girls were hurt. Junior forward James Hansen is playing for the Mustangs for the first time and senior defender Chayse Geeffre came back after only playing his freshman year.

Their impact, along with the maturation of several young Sunrise Mountain players, has been immediate. The Mustangs were 6-9 last year, but have rocketed to a 9-1 start as winter break hits and appear to be a legitimate 4A contender.

“Chayse and James both went to play for club national (in an) out of state tournament past years. That’s why according to AIA both of my players weren’t eligible to play HS soccer,” Sunrise Mountain Boys Coach Bob Hossain stated in an email. ” This year Chayse is senior and James is junior. They have decided to play for HS not club soccer. By having them back and rejoining our very young soccer program it’s a huge gain for us and lifted all our freshmens’ and others confidence on the team.”

Hossain stated he also coaches AZODP program and the AIA allows high school players to attend ODP training and games. He said that this makes no sense to most coaches.

In that sense, his views mostly align with Melbye’s.

“I would like to see in the future AIA dissolve this rule and allow them to play both club and high school. In the past, so many parents emailed about this issue because their sons couldn’t come out for high school soccer because of the club commitment. Also lots of club coaches would not let them join the high school program because they believe standards of high school soccer is very poor,” Hossain stated. “I believe we all should be on the same page and work together and all student athletes that play for club teams be allowed to play for their high school. This is something they will remember rest of their lives.”

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