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For their own good
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Overlapping seasons have high school coaches concerned about player health and team chemistry.
By BRANDON WRIGHT
Published February 7, 2006
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
PHU's Max Venker, right, says he plays club soccer to attract college recruiters, and he has interest from Vandy and Johns Hopkins.
ST. PETERSBURG - For as long as he could remember, Scott Vroman wanted to play soccer.
He learned the game in youth leagues and honed his arsenal of skills at the club level. When it came time to play in high school, Vroman, a team captain, helped Countryside get within a game of the state final his senior year. Cougars coach Dave Sica called him an "extension of the coaching staff" on the field. Vroman, last season's Times' Pinellas Player of the Year, was described as "tireless, intense and driven."
But the combination of countless club and high school games began wearing on Vroman. He missed out on school functions, social gatherings and being a teen.
"Soccer just never seemed to end," said Vroman, now a freshman at Florida State. "It was beginning to get tiresome and I was missing out on too much stuff. I was fried."
Colleges wanted the stocky sweeper. He received multiple offers to keep playing. But the choice was as easy as knocking in an empty-netter.
"I just quit," Vroman said.
A nonstop season
Club sports have gained popularity in the past two decades as an avenue for high school athletes to craft their skills during the offseason. The two have coexisted, mostly amicably, by benefiting the other. Clubs get kids started at an early age and go all the way through the teenage years. Club soccer, which can cost thousands a year, also provides a way for athletes to play year-round.
"The players benefit from the extra coaching, the individual instruction and the time that can be devoted, there's no question about that," Sica said.
There also is little doubt club soccer, with about 30 teams in the bayarea, has influenced the high school game.
"I really started to notice the number of players, and more importantly the caliber of players, start to increase in the last seven to eight years," Palm Harbor University girls and Countryside Lightning club coach John Planamenta said. "The training they have been getting for years at the club level is making an impact at the high school level."
The major difference between club and high school soccer lies in the scheduling conflict. Club volleyball, for example, picks up after the fall high school season and runs into the summer. In soccer, many clubs hold tryouts in June, begin training in July, and play into May. With the high school season running from October to February, there is an overlap some coaches take exception to.
"My concern is the player's health and that's priority No.1. We're talking about teenage bodies and they're not getting the opportunity to recover," longtime Jesuit boys and former club coach Bob Bauman said.
Florida is one of the few states where soccer is played during the winter, meaning the high school season is in full swing when most of the major club tournaments occur during November and December. Some high school coaches are sympathetic; others are not.
"It comes down to a choice for our players," said Sica, who has coached and played at the club level. "If they choose to miss a practice because of something else, then there are consequences."
Should club players be afforded different rules than those who just play in high school?
"It's not a perfect system but I believe that if a player misses time because of club, it gives another player a chance to step in and show what they have," Planamenta said. "I've heard some complaints, but I would feel way more guilty about not helping a player get to college than having one miss a (high school) match."
Kelvin Jones, who has coached at the high school (Chamberlain and Plant) and club level (Blackwatch, HC United and currently director of coaching at Palm Harbor Club), says players' futures are of greatest concern.
And, he points out, the playoffs are based only on the results of district tournaments. "So what does it matter what your (regular-season) record is?" he said.
But Bauman says missing players compromises team chemistry. Gaither's star midfielder, Fernando Gonzalez, broke his foot in a club match a week before the start of districts and is out for the season. Gaither, ranked second in the nation by studentsportssoccer.com at the time, lost its first match of the season in the district final.
"My job is to build a successful program. Why should I have to modify that for club?" Bauman said. "It's not fair to the other players on my team.
Max Venker, a senior midfielder who plays for Palm Harbor University and HC United who is being recruited by Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins, said missing high school time is a difficult decision.
"I hate having to leave my (high school) team because I've made a commitment to them," he said. "But to get noticed, I didn't have a choice."
Burned out, broken down?
Another concern is the number of matches, particularly in November and December. Sica's Cougars reached the finals of the Admiral Invitational on Dec.23, playing six matches in five days. Twenty-five of his 26 players then practiced two of the next three days before competing in the Sun Bowl for another rigorous stretch of matches.
"Last year (at Countryside) we played 30 matches," Sica said. "So let's say a kid played 50 club matches, which is probably a low estimate. Conservatively, if he has 100 practices between club and high school, that's 180 days of soccer.
"Divide that into 365 (days) and that's soccer every other day, all year long. Some of my players got three out of 18 days off for Christmas break."
How much soccer is too much? The FHSAA limits high school soccer to three matches per week or four if a tournament is included, but no one caps club matches.
FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has addressed overtraining, imposing a three-week break for players before this year's World Cup. If world-class athletes who do nothing but train and play are restricted, what about high school athletes who juggle homework, school functions and busy social lives on top of year-round soccer?
"Nobody really knows what is the optimum or maximum games per year (for professionals)," FIFA chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak told Reuters. "I'd say about 50 to 60 games per year was okay. But 70 to 80 is really the upper limit."
Tampa Bay sports medicine doctor Tim Runyon, who works with the Devil Rays, said placing a maximum on matches played over a short stretch is more important than the number during the course of a year.
"When you're talking about a kid playing four or five matches in a weekend at these club tournaments, that's too much," Runyon said.
Dr. Jerry Cosentino of the Bayshore Podiatry Center has seen the effects of overtraining in athletes.
"I've had athletes come in and you could literally hear their tendons creak like a door from overuse," said Cosentino, a former team doctor for the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Mutiny. "Everyone is built different, but injuries are more prevalent when there is not sufficient rest time."
Sica worries that the level of soccer is suffering.
"Some of these club coaches are abusing these kids and asking impossible things from them," Sica said. "Coaches preach every game is important, but how can we expect a player to stay at that high level for all these games they are playing? They are getting fatigued and burning out."
The recruiting factor
College coaches are more likely to attend a club tournament featuring 32 teams than flying into town for a Seminole-Lakewood match. HC United's Web site lists 131 former players who advanced to college soccer.
"At these showcase tournaments, there might be 200 colleges in attendance," Planamenta said. "And it's not just for the star players. There are coaches from NAIA to Division I."
Nine local members of the Countryside Lightning recently signed their national letters of intent - not at their high schools, but at club headquarters.
But Bauman said kids are being misled into believing the tourneys are an automatic ticket to a scholarship.
"A very small percentage of players get scholarships (Division I men's soccer programs have 9.9 scholarships available for a 25-man roster; D-I women's teams are allotted 12) and almost all are partials with academic scholarships mixed in," he said. "So really, you can throw those promises out the window."
But Jones noted that if more high school coaches promoted their players, club tournaments would not be so necessary. "If high school coaches could get the college coaches to the high school games, then we wouldn't have to go to the club tournaments," he said.
The next step?
There appears to be no easy solution. Jones suggests moving the high school season to the spring or fall.
"Why are we playing soccer in the middle of winter in Florida? We have the most beautiful weather in the country and we're playing (high school) soccer in the middle of winter," Jones said. "(The FHSAA) did it to just put soccer in the middle of fall and spring football."
FHSAA associate director of athletics Tamara Wilsey said moving the season hasn't been discussed in her three years there.
With the girls state tournament this week, the most stressful part of the year for these athletes is winding down. But as the high school season draws to a close, more club tournaments will follow.
"The way things are going now, this isn't good for high school and it isn't good for the clubs," Sica said. "And without a doubt, it isn't good for the kids."