Pierson Hamilton had it made.
Desert Vista’s first-year girls soccer coach inherited a team coming off a 2004-05 state championship with All-Tribune goalkeeper Amanda Maes entering her senior season.
But Maes had other ideas.
Having won a prep title, she opted to play for Sereno Soccer Club this year, leaving Hamilton with a big hole in his goal.
"I was going to try to talk to her. But I kind of got the impression from everyone that it’s her choice, her decision, and that’s just the way it is," Hamilton said. "Do I think she’d help? Of course."
An Arizona Interscholastic Association rule, implemented last season, prevents players from suiting up for high school and club soccer in the same season.
That has forced some players to make a difficult choice — and many have chosen club.
Highland lost star forward Carly Dobratz to Sereno.
Forward Chelsea Bednarz of Corona del Sol, as well as midfielders Mallory Fox and Jennifer Christoph of Horizon, have chosen to play for the club the last two years.
And the rule may have had its biggest impact on the Chaparral boys.
"(Sereno) pulled, I think, five players off my starting team from last year," second-year Chaparral coach Jason Speirs said.
Sereno is one of the nation’s elite clubs and the only club in Arizona that continues play through the high school season.
That irks some coaches.
"(The high school season) is maybe eight weeks to 10 weeks of (the players’) time," said Speirs. "The clubs, you’d think, could give that up just to let these kids have a high school experience. It’s just kind of sad."
Sereno’s influence affected Speirs’ team last year, too. The club was interested in two Firebirds, John Connors and Robert Erlichman, during the high school season.
Erlichman opted to play with Sereno at a national tournament, but he did not inform Speirs of the decision and continued to play with Chaparral.
"We didn’t find out until two weeks later that (Sereno) had actually taken him to the winter tournament, and we had to forfeit two of our region wins," said Speirs, who believes the two forfeits cost the team a spot in the region tournament.
This year, Erlichman took the field for Chaparral, but Connors, who scored eight goals for the Firebirds last year, opted to play with Sereno.
Players find it hard to pass on an opportunity that high schools simply don’t offer — the chance to play in front of college scouts.
Disney’s Soccer Showcase, Dec. 27-Jan. 2 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is billed as "the premier boys and girls college recruiting tournament in the United States" and is the only place Sereno players will see game action between now and the end of the high school season.
More than 500 college coaches attended last year’s tournament.
"These players are getting scholarships, full rides to good schools and it’s hard to blame them for picking that route," said Speirs.
For Maes, who verbally committed to Pepperdine before the soccer season, the reasoning was different.
"It was a commitment to (my Sereno team) that I decided to make for my own personal development," said the goalkeeper, who wants to gear up for her collegiate career against the top competition.
There are other factors.
"There’s definitely some pressure," Maes confessed. "On the club side, our coaches will not be shy about the fact that they tell kids, ‘We want you to play club.’ They’re very adamant about that.
"When the person that decides whether or not you’re going to play in big tournaments is pressuring you into something, that obviously weighs on you."
While high school coaches seem to agree that club sports are generally a good thing, it’s this "pressure" to not play at the high school level that bothers them.
"I get the impression there’s a little arm-twisting going on," Hamilton said.
Highland girls coach John Berzins agrees.
"I don’t know if it’s to the point that (Sereno coaches say) ‘If you don’t (skip the high school season) then you can’t play for us.’ But I definitely think they push on their kids to stay."
Maes said a club with such power over the elite players in the area will water down the high school competition.
"You see the absence of some of the stronger players in the state," she said.
"I loved playing for my high school. I think it’s unfortunate that clubs are pressuring the players to give in to something because they say the quality’s not there, when in fact, last year I was playing with quality players that are doing very well at Division I schools."
Attempts to contact representatives of Sereno for comment were unsuccessful.
For Hamilton, it’s what kids are missing out on with their high school teams that is the biggest loss.
"There’s a high school experience here. And kids are missing that. I feel sad that those kids are going to miss out on that for a perceived improvement in their college recruiting chances."