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Alaskans had good reasons to come here

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003

They were easy to spot, those Alaskans. They were the ones not huddled by the bleachers or crumpled up against a concrete light pole in an effort to break the stiff, chilly wind blowing across the Land O' Lakes Recreation Complex.

They were the ones in shorts who occasionally yelled, "I'm hot," and made a show of taking off sweat-shirts while other fans sipped watered-down hot chocolate and adjusted their hoods and, in some cases, scarves. There was even a squeeze package of Australian Gold tanning oil being passed around, though none of the northerners owned up to putting it on.

This is what Sun Bowl is all about.

No, not show-offs who fly in from close to the Arctic Circle to revel in 40-degree temperatures. Rather, the opportunity for a club soccer team to travel three-quarters of the way across a hemisphere to play against some of the nation's best players -- on grass, but we'll get to that later.

The Goldstrikers 86 are the reigning Under-17 state champions from Anchorage, Alaska. Of the 278 teams that poured into town last week, the Goldstrikers were the only one from Alaska. In fact, they're the first Alaskan team in the Sun Bowl's 25-year history.

They're also a perfect example of why Sun Bowl attracts so many teams and college scouts for the four-day, four-county tournament broken into 10 different flights in divisions ranging from Under-14 to Under-19. That's a big step up from the inaugural Sun Bowl in 1977 when 16 local Under-12 teams got together at the Skyway Fields and Shimberg Complex.

There were 38 state champions at this Sun Bowl, which ended Monday with U.S. National team member Cobi Jones handing out trophies. And while it seemed likely the Goldstrikers would melt into the background against such a talented turnout, you couldn't help but marvel at the white-clad team from the banks of the Cook Inlet.

These are players whose high school season begins in April, ends in May and is played outdoors on artificial turf in the snow. The only months they can play on grass are June, July and August and you can imagine what the ground is like after being covered with snow and ice for nine months. The rest of the year is spent inside on half-fields of fake grass, a perfect recipe for being ignored by anyone in college athletics.

So the Goldstrikers travel.

In November, they went to the Nomads Tournament in San Diego, finished runner-up in the Under-17/18 Gold Division and earned a national ranking by one online service.

It matters little that the ranking is 94th. They're on the map! Even if it's just barely.

Sun Bowl was about improving that ranking (or, for teams not yet on the list, to get one), while impressing college coaches who positioned their collapseable lawn chairs between four fields to maximize their viewing potential.

That final phrase alone is worth the who-knows-how-long plane rides with layovers and weather delays to get here and back. Plus, it's fun to talk to people back home and learn that the temperature last Saturday in Anchorage was minus-9 ... during the day.

That's why parents would interrogate anyone in a warmup suit. Are you with a school? Which team are you with? Is there an address we can send you highlights?

It's why Alaskan parents spent the better part of their holiday vacation on a field surrounded by a budding subdivision situated around a golf course next to people with more clothes on than they had in their suitcases.

It's the essence of Sun Bowl -- maximum competition equals maximum exposure equals maximum opportunity. It's why more than 4,000 players and fans flood the area for four days every year.

The Goldstrikers (1-2-1) lost 2-0 Sunday to a team from Louisville, Ky. Their Sun Bowl was over. But that didn't matter. They had shown what they needed to show and proved what they needed to prove. Plus, several of the parents got decent tans.

Now, that's three things you can't do in Alaska in December.

-- Staff writer Mike Readling covers sports in Hillsborough County.

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