Youth Soccer Programs on Collision Course
By Keith Mills
Mike St. Martin is beginning his 13th season as soccer coach at Mount St. Joseph and he's hoping that number is as lucky as his team is strong.
"This could be one of the better teams we've had," said St. Martin.
That is saying a lot since the Gaels reached the MIAA A Conference final last year, shared the championship with Loyola four years ago and won the title outright in 2001. They also have made the playoffs every year since.
"We're not real big, but we're very skilled and very quick," said St. Martin, whose team opened the preseason last week with a 2-0 scrimmage win over DeMatha.
The team's most skilled player may be 15-year-old Jalen Robinson, captain of the U.S. Under-15 national team and one of the best high school players in the country.
"It's rare to see a sophomore that has that combination of skill and experience," said St. Martin. "He went over to Germany this past spring and had a great experience with the national team. He is just a great kid. His parents are top-notch and he's very, very talented."
So is forward David Arnold, who scored 13 goals last year, seven in the last six games, as the Gaels made a fierce playoff run. "He's one of the most well-rounded athletes I've ever been around," St. Martin said of the 6-foot-2 senior who also plays lacrosse, is a member of the junior national volleyball team and is a two-handicap golfer.
Then there is junior defender Jordan Manley, a two-year starter for the Gaels on defense. "He reads the game well," said St. Martin. "He knows where they're going to pass before they pass."
The list of great players doesn't end there as the roster also includes Earl Kidwell, Zak Modly, Brad Benzing, Brett Smoot, Brennan Orsulak and senior Gaeton Caltabiano, a national age-group team player who helped the Baltimore Bays win the Under-14 youth national championship three years ago. Caltabiano has missed the start of the Gaels' preseason because he is playing for a club team in Italy.
"We're expecting him back, which should make us that much better,” said St. Martin. “We're very excited about the season."
The veteran coach is not excited, however, about a letter he received from two of his players last week via John Maessner, director of youth development for the DC United Soccer Academy.
"I have never received a letter like this from another club team before," said St. Martin. "I was just blown away by it. They're telling the kids they have to sign it to play."
The letter is basically a permission form given to all players who wish to play on DC United's U-16, U-18 and U-20 teams.
On the form is a clause stating:
• "DC United Academy player may NEVER miss a DC United game for a high school soccer game.
• "DC United Academy player is permitted to play up to TWO high school soccer games per week.
• "The same guidelines will be followed for the high school soccer playoff season.
However, DC United director of youth development may excuse DC United Academy players on an individual basis depending on the high school soccer playoff game.'"
And then there is this request for the high school coach, in this case Mike St. Martin, to sign the form:
"DCU player and high school soccer coach must sign form prior to high school soccer season starts."
"I just couldn't believe what I was reading," said St. Martin. "Just the arrogance of the letter. Like what we do isn't even important. There are some very good coaches in our league and in high school in general. In the MIAA, the level of soccer is very good. It's not like there's one superstar on the team and everyone is a bunch of hacks. We're developing kids and it's proven by the number of guys who are playing in college."
Twelve of St. Martin's players from the past four years are playing Division I soccer collegiately and another eight are playing at the Division III level. Among them: Adam Santiago (High Point), Vincent Garofalo (Holy Cross), Uche Ukoha (James Madison), Stafford Chipungu (Rutgers), Jonathan Stephenson (Richmond), Vinny Caltabiano (Stevenson) and Chris Quamina (St. Mary's).
"There should be a working relationship between the clubs and high schools, and for the most part there has been," said St. Martin. "Most club teams have worked together with the high schools. And then … to get a letter like this. How can I sign this? That's not fair to the rest of the kids on the team.
"Now I do understand that the DC Academy pretty much is based in Virginia and in Virginia the high school soccer season is played in the spring. That's when the state cups and regional cups are being decided at the club level. So I can see why they want their players to play for the club. But I still don't understand why there has to be an ultimatum. It's really putting the kids and the high school coaches in a tough spot."
DC United is one of several area club teams that draw the majority of their players from high schools in the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. areas, and no one is more aware of club soccer's importance and relevance in regards to developing players and showcasing skills than St. Martin.
Back in 2004 he coached the Baltimore Bays Under-11 club team. The Bays are one of the premier club teams in the country, having just won two more national championships last month in Boston. In fact, the coach of those two teams is Steve Nichols, who is also the coach at McDonogh, which beat Mount St. Joe in last year's A Conference finals. McDonogh has won four of the last nine conference championships.
St. Martin's own Mount St. Joe team is loaded with players who play for such area club teams as the Bays, Soccer Association of Columbia (SAC), Bethesda Soccer Club, Western Howard County and the Thunder Football Club of Frederick. But to play you have to pay, and club soccer can be very expensive.
"It usually costs around $1,500 for a kid to play on one of the premier club teams," said St. Martin. "That's not including uniforms and travel, and they travel a lot. But parents are willing to pay it because they know college coaches come out to see the club teams play. And they do. The college coaches are off in the spring and it gives them a chance to see most of the players they are recruiting.
"I am not against club soccer. It's a huge part of the development of a player and parents look at the clubs as a great way to get college scholarships. Hey, I coached club soccer a couple of years ago and helped out this summer with one of the DC Academy teams. But there has always been this working relationship with the high schools. If DC United gets away with this, it could be a real downfall for high school sports."
Mike St. Martin grew up in a family of educators. His mother Barbara worked in the Anne Arundel County school system and his sister Aimee is a teacher while his father Art, a retired physical education teacher at Linthicum Elementary and Lindale Middle Schools, is one of the most successful local girls basketball coaches ever. From 1982-89 his Brooklyn Park girls teams won six state championships, including five in a row from 1985-89.
It is that background in education St. Martin points to as the backbone of high school sports, the counterculture, so to speak, of club sports.
"I'm an educator," said St. Martin, who also teaches at Mount St. Joe and stopped coaching club soccer to spend time with, and coach, his three youngsters: Brooke, Brett and Brian. "That's what I went to school for. What is the background of some of these club coaches? They may be licensed and they know soccer, but how much of an educator are they?"
St. Martin went to Calvert Hall and played soccer for Bill Karpovich and baseball for Joe "Snooky" Binder, two of the most successful coaches in the history of Baltimore high school sports. He then played soccer and baseball at Frostburg State College, graduating with a teaching degree in health and physical education.
"As far as the educational system, I grew up in it," said St. Martin. "I played for Karp. He helped me grow up and he showed me how and why education is important. For them [DC United Academy] to say high school soccer's just about the social aspect is not right; we do a lot more.
"There's an atmosphere where the teachers and student body support you in what is the ultimate goal -- college. And it mimics what college is going to be like. You play with kids of different ages. You exist on a social level with them. You may have a senior in high school playing with a freshman or sophomore and you may have that in college and if you're young, you have to learn to play with upperclassmen and vice versa.
"And we just don't see the kids on the field. Kids are always coming into my office, talking about family things and what's going on in their lives. A teacher will come up to me and ask me to have a word with a kid who's struggling in class. Keeping their grades up is a huge aspect of what coaches do in high school. We do a lot of teaching off the field. It's not just about what goes on from 3 to 5 o'clock."
And it's that academic element St. Martin says is what separates high school sports from club and AAU sports.
"The clubs are selling pro soccer as the ultimate goal to the parents, the ultimate dream," said St. Martin. "But what is the percentage of kids playing pro soccer? It's very low. We emphasize college. And you don't even have to want to play soccer in college to be a very good, well-rounded student-athlete. We monitor their grades, set up interviews with schools. There's so many studies done that show kids who play a sport in high school do better during the season academically than when the season's over.
"We had a kid who left us to play for a club team. His mom told me he wasn't going to play high school ball so he could concentrate on getting his grades up. When he was playing jayvee ball for us, he was carrying a 3.0 GPA. She told me he was struggling so I had her read off his grades. In season, when he was playing for us, they were A's and B's. When soccer was over they fell to C's and D's, so that argument doesn't stand about taking time off to get the grades up."
St. Martin's argument is shared by high school coaches and administrators throughout the state. But the lure of the college scholarship and possible professional contracts is extremely enticing to parents whose youngsters are exceptional players.
"Club soccer has its niche and is very important," said St. Martin. "It's huge. But the kids are being put in a position to make a choice and that's a shame."
Posted August 25, 2009