Northside Christian's girls soccer team includes a talented group of players from its middle school.
By RODNEY PAGE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2002
Northside Christian will have five players on its girls varsity soccer team graduate this year -- from middle school. Three players, two of whom are starters, graduated last year -- from elementary school.
Nearly half of the players on the Mustangs' roster aren't in high school. When Northside Christian shows up for a game, opposing coaches sometimes scramble for a schedule to make sure it's a varsity game. But taking the Mustangs lightly this season isn't a good idea. Despite a decided disadvantage in size and experience, they are winning more games than the three previous seasons in which the school fielded a girls team. Through Thursday, the Mustangs were 9-7-2.
"We do surprise a lot of teams," said Leah Hatfield, an eighth-grader who has started at nearly every position this season. "We have a lot of heart and play really hard. That's what makes the biggest difference in soccer. It's not how big you are, but how much heart you have for the game."
Hatfield, who stands barely 5 feet tall and has earned a reputation for being a physical player, is considered by her teammates to be the team's most valuable player. But she isn't the only ultra-underclassman to make an impact. Sixth-graders Jenna Smith and Megan Fisher are starters, even though they are 6 years younger and several pounds lighter than some of their opponents. Sixth-grader Catherine Brown also sees playing time.
Eighth-graders Lauren Duff, Debbie Lowry, Courtney Mikolaj and Teresa Shields also have earned playing time.
Northside Christian doesn't have a junior varsity team, and there were no cuts at tryouts this season, which has made it easier for the younger players to make varsity. And there is no Florida High School Activities Association rule that states middle-schoolers cannot play high school varsity sports. Of course, the catch is that only private schools have elementary and middle schools on the same campus.
A middle-schooler at a public school is limited to playing on the middle school team until advancing to ninth grade.
What Northside Christian is doing is by no means unprecedented. For example, Indian Rocks Christian cross-country runner Melissa Kotchman was third in the state this season despite being an eighth-grader. And several schools have middle school golfers and swimmers who excel.
What is unique is the number of middle school players the Mustangs have on their roster, the number that start and the fact they're winning.
"(Opposing teams) play the whole game and then afterwards they find out that most of our team is middle-schoolers and they'll be like, "Oh ... ,"' said Hillary Chisholm, one of only four seniors. "And then if somebody beats us, they'll be happy and then they find out we're mostly middle-schoolers. Pretty much it's like a moral victory if we come close and lose sometimes because we have sixth-graders. But our sixth-graders are pretty good."
For first-year coach Mindy Peterson, this season has been eye-opening. Peterson, who teaches elementary classes at Northside Christian, wasn't sure what to make of the first day of practice.
"I didn't even know middle-schoolers could play," she said. "I didn't know how good we'd be with all these younger players. But we've gotten better in each game."
Peterson, who is six months pregnant and due in April, will continue to coach the team after the baby is born, she said, although she'll take time off from teaching.
With the potential these Mustangs have, it's easy to see why Peterson would want to remain with the team.
"My goal is to see the sixth-graders graduate (from high school)," Peterson said. "We can be very good in the years to come."
For now, the goal is simple. The Mustangs want to end the season with a winning record. In order to do that, they'll have to overcome not only the age difference, but opposing teams' thoughts.
"Everyone thinks, "Oh, they're Northside Christian. They're the easy team,"' Hatfield said. "But I think we've surprised some teams. We've lost some older players and I don't think people thought we'd win as many games as we did."
In the future, there will be changes at Northside Christian. Thanks to the strong group of middle-schoolers, as well as three freshmen and three juniors, tryouts will mean something next year.
"We'll actually have to make cuts," Peterson said.