Sophie Babo is back playing soccer for Orono High School this year after missing last season because she was with the Minnesota Thunder Academy. Photo: NICK WOSIKA • Special to the Star Tribune
A change in the start date of the top level of club soccer for girls has provided a significant boost to the caliber of play in high school soccer this season.
At North St. Paul, a program that went 2-13-2 last year has improved to 11-4-1 this season. Much of the team’s success can be attributed to seniors Madie Frick and Abby Hausken, who spent last season playing club soccer instead with their high school teammates.
Orono welcomed back senior Sophie Babo, a University of Kentucky recruit who first played varsity for the Spartans as a seventh-grader, and Carly Goehring. Both opted for club soccer last season with the Minnesota Thunder Academy (MTA). This season, Orono is 13-2-1 and ranked second in Class 1A.
The change that brought them back was a decision by club soccer’s Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) to push back its start to Oct. 18, after most high school teams have finished their seasons. The move was made because the Minnesota State High School League does not allow athletes to play high school and club sports at the same time.
The change triggered the return of most of the 54 top girls’ players who left last season to play for the MTA. With more skilled players on more high school teams, games are more competitive and the level of play is higher this year, Orono coach Erin Murray said.
“It has made high school soccer back to what it should be,” Murray said.
Babo, among the best players in the state, took the field Thursday night to celebrate “senior night’’ with her high school teammates.
“To be able to play for your school and shoot for a state championship is a big deal,’’ she said. “We’re really thankful for this year, especially the seniors.”
Fixing ‘terrible’ situation
Credit Danny Storlien, who wears hats in the club and high school soccer worlds, for the maneuver that has reshaped the girls’ soccer landscape.
The departure of many of the state’s top girls for club soccer for Thunder Academy rather than for their high school was understandable. The consensus is club soccer improves the players’ skills through rigorous training and by pitting them against the best teams in the country. It also helps players gain recognition from college coaches. Some ECNL games reportedly draw 30 to 40 college coaches and scouts on a regular basis.
However, advocates for the sport believe playing high school soccer is important, too. The athletes take pride in playing for their community, enjoy playing in front of their friends and family and learn life skills through things such as working with area youth programs, volunteering and fundraising.
Storlien, the academy girls’ team director and the Bloomington Jefferson boys’ coach, called last year a “terrible” situation. He was integral in working with the ECNL to move back the Thunder Academy’s starting date until after high school section playoffs have concluded. The Minnesota State High School League’s rule prohibiting club play during the school season stems from concern about injury risk and overuse.
“I tried every approach you can imagine,” Storlien said. “We did everything we could do to get it done. I think we’re pretty close to the best-case scenario for the girls now.”
Storlien said 73 girls make up MTA’s four ECNL teams — U18, U17, U16 and U15. Without the scheduling change, none of them would have been able to play for their high school team and stay with the academy. Storlien said “six or seven” girls who play for the Thunder Academy chose not to play for their high school this year for various reasons.
‘Awesome’ return for players
Having MTA players back with high school squads has been a shot in the arm for many prep programs.
St. Paul Academy has climbed up the Class 1A state rankings to seventh in the latest coaches poll. Senior captain Molly Fielder, who plays for MTA and will take the field for the Gophers next year, broke St. Paul Academy’s all time goal-scoring record this season while leading the Spartans.
Hill-Murray, the No. 1 seed in the Class 1A, Section 4 tournament, has improved by adding MTA players Emily Heslin, Callyn Loughrey. And MTA attacker Britney Monteon is 11-3-2 Blaine’s leading scorer.
North St. Paul defeated perennial power Mahtomedi earlier in the year amid a nine-game winning streak. The Polars, behind Frick and Hausken, are expected to contend for the Class 2A, Section 4 championship.
“Having them back has been awesome,” North St. Paul coach Katie Nicholson said. “Both are leaders on and off the field and intense players. They both walked in and got respect immediately.”
Frick first played varsity for the Polars as a seventh-grader. Immediately after last season, she was voted a captain for this year though she didn’t play for the team as a junior and her status for this season was unknown.
“Being back has been awesome,” said Frick, who will play collegiately for DePaul next year. “Last year, not being fully involved was hard. It feels great now. This was our last chance, so it makes it even better.”
Change of heart for coach
At East Ridge, coach Mark Abboud saw four ECNL players return to the Raptors lineup this fall — seniors Payton Goulding and Taylor Turner and sophomores Emily Bunnell and Brittany Mahowald.
Abboud was essential to forming the Thunder Academy. He started the Bangu Tsunami U8-U12 program in 2008 and helped facilitate the merger of Bangu, the Wings Soccer Club and the Thunder to launch the MTA.
At the time, Abboud said, the idea was to pull players from high school and give them year-round training through the club. But his perspective changed when he began coaching at East Ridge when the Woodbury school opened in 2009.
“I’ve kind of come full circle on that,” Abboud said. “I’m glad they’re able to do both. At the end of the high school season, I always see tears. That’s because of the passion and desire the girls have for their team. That’s been rewarding.”
Goulding, who got a chance to go head-to-head against her MTA teammate Mallory Fenske at Tartan this fall, said the influx of club players has raised the level of play this high school season.
“Having more MTA players playing definitely does help,” said Goulding, who will play at the University of Missouri next year. “The MTA girls really do stand out and increase the level of competition.”
The ECNL is entering its sixth year. Storlien said the league’s format is “still evolving,” adding that this season’s scheduling experiment will be revisited this spring after the ECNL season. His belief is nothing major will change. MTA has until June to commit to the league for the 2015-16 season.
“Hopefully everything goes smoothly,” he said. “It should be OK.”
The return of Abby Hausken to North St. Paul has contributed to a turnaround in the team's fortunes this season. Photo courtesy Kristen Frick.
Madie Frick is one reason North St. Paul is expected to contend in post-season play. Photo courtesy Kristen Frick.