These clubs wield success

Champions: Four area players illustrate how the road to soccer stardom almost always travels through club teams.

High School Sports

Fall Preview

Girls Soccer

September 04, 2001|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

For each of them, the story is the same. The only thing that changes is the details.

Julie Napolitano was kicking soccer balls not long after she learned how to walk. Erin Dubina made her first travel team as a second-grader. Kelly Hammond and Katy Owings got an early nudge from their parents. And more than a decade later they still haven't looked back.

Sound familiar? If it doesn't, then welcome to the world of big-time girls soccer, where the competition starts young and never stops. Players scramble and compete to grab a coveted spot on elite area travel teams -- and that's just in middle school. Teams start as early as age 9, and some girls often play together up to age 19 on the dozens of teams that operate in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"My parents had me involved in just about every sport when I was young, but soccer was the one that really stuck," says Hammond, who lives in Bowie.

She's not alone. All four -- Hammond, Napolitano, Dubina and Owings -- were dedicated and talented enough that they experienced the summit of club soccer success this July as members of the Bethesda Fury, when they won the national championship for girls 17 and under by defeating a team from California. A writer from Newsweek magazine even followed the team for several months and wrote a story about its title run.

"It was just an amazing feeling, winning it all," says Napolitano, who lives in Ellicott City. "I don't know if a lot of people realize what we went through to get there. We didn't have a day off for two months straight. In between our games, half of us would sit in ice water baths just so we could play in the afternoon."

For the girls, each of whom was recruited to play on the Fury, winning the championship not only represented years of dedication to soccer, but years of dedication to each other.

"We play with a ton of heart because we're so close," says Hammond, who scored the game-winner in the title game and was named the tournament MVP.

Says Dubina: "When you spend so much time together, give up so much of your social life, you have to become really close. We've played together for so long that it's different from our high school teams."

While all four are accomplished high school players about to head into their senior years -- Napolitano at Mount Hebron and Dubina at Severna Park were first-team All-Metro selections last year, and Hammond and Owings were standouts at St. Mary's -- each of them likely will play soccer in college mainly because of their tenure with the Fury. It's no secret that hundreds of college scouts show up at their tournaments, and that's just one reason why, after just a month off, they'll resume practice with the Fury even though each of them also has commitments to their high school teams.

That fact alone may best represent how much soccer has changed in the last decade, as the emphasis has shifted from high school to club teams, especially in the eyes of college coaches.

"The two are such different games," Napolitano says. "High school soccer is much more physical, where as club soccer is more about skill. It's hard to even compare the two."

It's difficult, too, Hammond says, to not worry about injuries at the high school level, where fields can be rough and play can often be rougher.

"I definitely worry about injuries more [in high school]," says Hammond, who has orally committed to attend the University of Virginia. "The first game of last season I tore my hip flexor and it affected me for a long time. You just try to put that out of your mind."

If there is one other thing this summer taught them, it's that you shouldn't believe everything you read, at least about the Fury. After the Newsweek article on the team was published, many players were upset, feeling like they had been unfairly portrayed as hard-partying, hard-playing, foul-mouthed girls with little else on the brain besides soccer. The truth, they say, lies somewhere in the middle.

"A lot of what was written was true, but it just seemed like there wasn't any balance at all," Dubina says. "Hardly any of it was positive. We were pretty stunned. We had girls hobbling on crutches after games that would play the next day. None of that was in the story."

If fact, if there is one image they wish could have been captured in the story, it was the look on the faces of all 17 girls after they were handed the trophy.

"Every single one of us was smiling," says Owings, who lives in Annapolis. "Our team doesn't smile very much because we're always so focused and taking things seriously, but in that picture, every one of us couldn't stop grinning."

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