Highland lost what would have been its best returning soccer player, Ari Sanchez, to the new Real Salt Lake Arizona youth academy this winter.
Corona del Sol, the defending 5A Division I champions with one of the best teams in recent history, lost a lot to graduation. Then the Aztecs lost their top three returning players (Matt Bersano, Brian Hoyt and Casey Phillips) and a fourth contributor to the new Casa Grande academy.
Hamilton, which lost a thriller in the championship game to the Aztecs last season, lost one of its top three returners, Tanner Clay, who was also a standout receiver on the Huskies football team.
They’re all in Casa Grande to seek better competition and advance their skills with an eye toward the next level. The U18 program is where most Arizona, California and Utah kids are in, and of the 25-30 kids, 18 of them travel to competitions.
Meanwhile, the high school season closes in on next week’s state tournament without at least 5-6 elite soccer kids from the East Valley out of town. A figure that could keep growing.
“In terms of how it affects high school, it’s always dealt with this kind of stuff and survived just fine,” Gilbert coach Jeff Perry said.
There’s no doubt what Hamilton — once again a state championship contender — would have with Clay’s size and speed up front, not to mention his likeable personality.
Clay knew it was going to be hard on him. He’s close friends with current Huskies and has been in attendance at their games more than a few occasions this season.
The Hawks might not be trying to cling as tightly to one of the final playoff spots in the power points without the speedy Sanchez. Or that Corona has gone from universally great to outsiders in the playoff picture (though that kind of reversal has happened several times to schools in recent seasons).
Corona coach Dan Salas says the talent level is down a bit this year. Perry mostly agrees, though he noted the recent rise of 5A-II schools like Goodyear Millennium, Pinnacle and Phoenix Carl Hayden. Huskies coach Nick Markette rightfully points to the West Valley and Phoenix Metro schools who’ve emerged the last couple seasons, dangerous as ever.
That stuff changes annually, but with the club teams and now RSL academy siphoning of top-notch high school players during the winter, it’s hard not to wonder if high school soccer will continue to be further diluted because kids want even more elite training and better college exposure.
“If a kid decides it’s a better opportunity to get better training or whatnot, who am I to hold him back?” Salas said. “I want the best for the kid, not for me. I’ve had my high school experience in the sunlight. If you’re good, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, someone will find you.”
The former is possible if RSL — which lost its director and East Valley soccer icon Greg Vanney to a MLS coaching position early this month after less than a year of operation — can maintain its budgets and cache.
But some high school coaches here scoff at the latter. There are more tournament opportunities to be seen in these winter months outside high school soccer, but Salas noted his hoard of talented kids in 2009-10 were noticed by both NCAA Division I and Division III colleges while playing high school.
It’s forced Salas, for one, to dramatically change his coaching style and philosophy for this season, one which has been trying to say the least.
“I like this level, this age group,” said Salas, who still communicates with his former players now at the academy. “The talent level is here, it’s not all the best players but you still can’t take away the experience and relationships you build.
“If a coach is unhappy his players are leaving, it’s selfish.”
Many believe the loss of kids during the high school season is worse on the girls side than the boys, and while that’s true. The boys are catching up with the RSL academies and reactive move of big-time clubs like Sereno and Del Sol merging to start their own academies to keep kids insulated in club ball.
This year’s version of 2009-10 Corona could be Brophy. Hamilton is really good. Gilbert is good again under Perry and had its largest number of kids during tryouts. Tucson Salpointe and the Yuma schools (Kofa, San Luis) are every bit as good as Valley schools this season.
We’ll see in the next two weeks whether the soccer scene has changed much from even a year ago, and whether that can fairly be labeled as the product of top kids practicing in the desert 30-50 miles out of town.
Those that remain know this much: You can still win a state championship, go to college and have a lifetime of positive memories and life lessons playing for the school down the street on chewed-up fields.
“I’m passionate about club soccer but I see the high school role,” Markette said. “The club and academy can’t provide opportunities to be and grow up by being a freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. In high school, kids who are captains aren’t usually in club ball because of totally different dynamics. You learn how to wait your time and work your butt off without much return now, thinking something will come along down the road. You learn how to serve freshman and sophomores who aren’t your idea of ‘cool,’ but you still give them a ride after practice. Those roles aren’t replicated anywhere else.”