Haley Woodward faced one of the toughest decisions of her young life when she received an invitation to join the prestigious U.S. Soccer Development Academy earlier this year.
The invitation was a chance for the Fayetteville sophomore to compete with some of the top talented players from across the country, to learn the game under the tutelage of some of the best soccer minds the country has produced and, maybe most importantly, to earn a college scholarship.
State Soccer Championships
At Razorback Field, Fayetteville
Russellville vs. Siloam Springs, 10 a.m.
LR Christian vs. Russellville, noon
Springdale High vs. Bryant, 2 p.m.
Bryant vs. Conway, 4 p.m.
CAC vs. Harding Academy, 10 a.m.
CAC vs. Green Forest, noon
Pulaski Academy vs. Harrison, 2 p.m.
Valley View vs. Harrison, 4 p.m.
It would also mean she would have to leave her friends and teammates on Fayetteville's girls' soccer team, unable to compete on her school team because of an Arkansas Activities Association rule that prohibits athletes from playing both club and high school sports at the same time.
In the AAA Handbook, rule 14A says high school athletes who play team sports cannot participate with a "non-school athletic team" in the same season. Doing so could cost the athlete up to a year of eligibility.
There are some exceptions to this rule because athletes who play soccer, baseball and soccer can try out and practice with club teams during days the school team is not playing or practicing.
Woodward, 16, wrestled with the choice before she decided playing for the academy or another program like the Elite Clubs National League gave her the best shot at earning a Division I college scholarship.
"I had to make a decision for myself and to put me in the best opportunity to play in college," Woodward said. "I couldn't have that opportunity if I stayed in high school, I'd have to play outside."
Woodward is not alone in wishing the AAA would eliminate rule 14. Coaches and players agree that club teams offer more exposure for players because that's where colleges are looking for talent, they said.
"Those top college programs do the mass majority of their recruitment in the spring season because that's when they're not playing. That's when they can really get out and go recruit," Rogers girls soccer coach Aaron Crouch said.
The rule that limits players' exposure puts Arkansas prep players at somewhat of a disadvantage in the race for Division I college scholarships, coaches say. Players fr0m other states who are not restricted are able to play in elite showcase events throughout the spring and summer.
"My frustrations with the rule is that it really boxes in high school coaches," Crouch said. "It eliminates some of our best players in the state. We're really clipping the heels of our players that are ready to play at the next level."
Crouch knows personally what it was like to not have a top player on his team.
Skylurr Patrick, who led the Lady Mounties to the state title last season, only rejoined her school team her senior season after she had secured a scholarship from Purdue University by playing in the ECNL her sophomore and junior year.
When Crouch became the coach of the Mounties three years ago, he talked with Patrick about her options and what would be best for her.
The Rogers coach knew having Patrick on his team would be a tremendous advantage, but he also knew it wasn't in her best interest, he said. So for two seasons, arguably the best prep girls soccer player in the state walked the halls of Rogers High but did not wear a blue and white Mounties uniform.
Crouch finally got to pencil Patrick into his lineup last spring for her senior season after she had already inked a college scholarship with Purdue. Rogers won the state title as Patrick scored three goals in the championship match.
The AAA says the rule is in place to protect athletes from overuse.
Derek Walter, assistant executive director of the AAA, thinks there is a lot of friction between the club organizations and high school teams across all sports, not just soccer, with how club coaches interact with high school coaches. Walter said the rule is in place so that players play for one coach at a time.
"There are lots of, 'You're teaching them this. I'm trying to teach them this,'" Walters said.
Not all coaches in Northwest Arkansas agree with that and say that players can benefit from playing for multiple coaches.
"Kids need to learn from different coaches. I don't think one coach can teach a player everything they need to know," Bentonville girls' soccer coach Kris Henry said. "I don't want my kids just to hear what I have to say. I want them to have experiences with many coaches because every coach is going to reach a kid in a different way."
Jose Castro, an all-state player for Bentonville his senior year, is another who would like to see the rule go away.
In 2016 when Bentonville won a state boys soccer title, Castro was in Dallas playing with the city's MLS team, FC Dallas, on its U-16 developmental team. He wanted to be seen by more college coaches and felt the best way to do that was playing at a higher level where he would get more exposure, which he was not getting just playing on his Bentonville prep team.
"Here in Arkansas, it's not that big of a sport where colleges will come watch you play," Castro said. "Playing club, moving around and playing in different showcases definitely helped me out."
Castro returned to his high school team in 2017 after his decision paid off with a scholarship to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, where he just wrapped up his sophomore season.
He has no regrets about his choice, but he wished he would have been able to play for both his school team and his club team because he sees the merit in playing for both, he said. Players can improve their physicality at an earlier age in high school because they can compete against athletes who are sometimes older, bigger and stronger.
The ECNL, which Woodward also played in, can provide athletes with more exposure to Division I programs than playing for high school teams could, said Kerry Shubert, director of the ECNL program in Tulsa. Over 1,000 female players on Power 5 Conference teams are ECNL alumnae, according to the ECNL 2018 College Impact report.
"It makes it so easy for the coaches to recruit and find the best talent at a showcase event with all the best players," Shubert said.
Shubert said choosing to play high school over club does not mean players can't earn college scholarships, but he's found that most of the college coaches who will usually come to high school games are the local state schools, he said.
Fayetteville girls' coach Joe Thoma agrees that club games offer more exposure but thinks an athlete's play will speak for itself in the recruitment process regardless of where they play.
"If the kid is good, the college will find them. A good college coach will find talent," he said. "I think that goes for kids in Arkansas."
Thoma coached at the collegiate level for 12 years before returning to Fayetteville in 2011, and in his experience, he found that going to high school games when he was a college coach gave him more time to interact with players and their families, he said.
"There are nine other months in the year," Thoma said. "When I was coaching in college, I was recruiting all 12 months."
Surrounding states differ on dual-play rules. Oklahoma allows dual play, but Louisiana mimics Arkansas in that it does not allow it. Others, like Tennessee, allow dual play but have exceptions in place.
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association allows soccer athletes to participate in different club leagues like the ECNL, but individual school districts in the state can impose harsher restrictions to not allow dual play if they so choose, said Mark Reeves, the assistant executive director of the TSSAA, in an email.
The rule in Arkansas was not created by the AAA but was approved by the association's member schools from across the state. Once approved, the AAA handles the enforcement of the rule.
There are two ways a rule can be changed. Either the AAA's 20-person board that is comprised of superintendents from around the state can propose a change or any of the state's nine activity districts can propose the change at each of their annual meetings in April.
If a rule proposal passes through either one of those channels, the activity districts can vote to enact the law at the AAA Governing Body meeting in August, Walter said.
Coaches would like to see a compromise on the rule if possible, but they differ on what that compromise would look like in the state.
Thoma and Springdale girls and boys coach D.J. Beeler agree if one or two weekends a month were set aside for players to compete at club showcases, that would be a start in the right direction. Thoma added that he still believes there should be some restrictions.
"As far as opening up and just telling them to go play whenever I've just always been opposed to that," Thoma said. "It opens the kids up to overplaying, being stressed up, too much on their body, too much of their time if they do club and high school."
Woodward disagrees and said what a player does in regard to playing two sports at the same time should be their choice and not decided by a governing body.
"I'm so young," Woodward said. "I should be able to have fun, play for my high school and be able to play ECNL or DA and still, like, get the exposure that I need but still have fun with the sport as well."
Sports on 05/17/2019
Print Headline: Club Rules