Soccer players form Rowdy family
HUNTINGTON -- It's the last go around for a group of girls who have been playing soccer together for 10 years, since they were 8 years old in fact.
That's right, 8 years old. Some even started out when they were 3 or 4.
And out of the core group of 16 girls who have played on the same travel team since they were in elementary school, at least eight are expected to play at the college level.
Their names are familiar on the Tri-State soccer scene, though they're not always associated with the same team. There's the Huntington High crowd of Kelsie Burns, Sydney Jacobson, Braddick Price and Summer Wheatley; the Hurricane group of Brittany Minor, Callie McClanahan, Taylor Morton and Brittany McWharters; the George Washington (Charleston) trio of Haley Claudio, Charlie Lucente and Andrea Breeden; and from Capital and Ashland, Michelle Newhouse and Sarah Hudson respectively.
Almost all made first- and second-team all-state among the West Virginia Soccer Coaches Association selections, and Newhouse was named player of the year.
Most are used to seeing them in their high school kits on the pitch from August to early November.
But these players, along with Jorden Thornton and current Temple Owls player Katie Burgess, have spent the last 10 years from November through July as the West Virginia Soccer Club Rowdies, a travel team that has played in tournaments in 19 different states, and in at least one other country, along with college showcase tournaments as they've developed their game and shaped their futures.
They've never lost to another team in West Virginia.
There have been others who have come and gone from the Rowdies over the years, but to have a consistent group of so many players over such a long stretch of time is a rarity. It's also a sacrifice, among many other things.
Price said the Rowdies have had to fight for respect in every tournament they've played in, because the rest of the country doesn't think very highly of West Virginia soccer.
"I think other teams see the name West Virginia and they think, 'Oh, this is going to be easy,'" she said.
And there is some truth to the stigma, at least when it comes to soccer development in the state.
"The numbers we've had, we've gone into tournaments with 12 people," Price said. "And you look over at the opponents and they've got 20. They've got a whole other team on their bench."
"And that team has cut like 30 girls," Burns said.
While perhaps more well-known for their high school success, almost all the girls said they prefer playing on their club team over high school.
"High school is really kind of a break for us," Wheatley said.
"It's not that fun, I always wait for club to start," McClanahan said. "We're all on the same page at club. It's purely to get better. I'm not downing high school, but club is less frustrating."
Some of that has to do with playing with teammates who aren't as committed to the sport, many of the girls said.
And that commitment gets serious early.
Colleges typically start recruiting female soccer players at age 15. There's a lot of other stuff going on in the average girl's life at that same age, and there's a lot of push and pull between parents and players.
"When they turn 15, their social life becomes very important," said Cathy Burns, mother of Kelsie. "They love the sport, but they want to spend their weekends with friends, going to movies and things like that. That's when you lose certain players.
"The fact that this group stayed with it, that they stuck it out, is amazing."
Since the team isn't doing any college showcases this year, it will be the first time for most of the players that they've been home for New Year's in 10 years.
The answer is different for every girl on the squad, but Wheatley said she realized she wanted to stick with soccer around age 11, when the Rowdies made a deep run in a national tournament.
Others said the drive of increasingly more difficult competition kept them interested.
"I'm just glad we've all stuck together," McClanahan said. "I feel like we've all been through a lot together."
All acknowledge the sacrifice it takes to keep going.
"The best thing is being together at the tournaments and being at the hotels. When we're all depressed knowing we're missing parties, at least we have each other," Burns said with a laugh. "I just think it's been such a big part of our childhood. We've traveled so much because of it, we're basically family."
"I don't really feel like I've missed out on anything," Hudson added. "I'd rather be doing this than going to a party any day."