Earlier this month, Central Virginia became the Mecca of high school soccer in the commonwealth as four local programs captured Virginia High School League state championships.
The Albemarle girls soccer team scored four unanswered goals in the second half to knock off Deep Run 4-1 in Richmond to take home its second Class 5 state title in three years.
In Salem, Joe Von Storch scored a goal in stoppage time to force overtime and Benhui Ryang scored the game winner with three minutes left in overtime to give the Charlottesville boys soccer team a 2-1 victory over previously unbeaten Chancellor in the Class 4 state final.
The Western Albemarle girls soccer team earned a 3-1 victory over Brentsville District to capture its third straight Class 3 state championship. The Western boys soccer team followed suit, as Joey Paulson scored a pair of goals to lead the Warriors to a 4-0 victory over Northside to secure its second Class 3 state title in four years.
“I think that one thing I attribute the success of the area to is the passion of the players, along with the coaches,” Albemarle all-state junior midfielder Savannah Alexander said. “There have been a lot of high expectations and hours of work spent from teams throughout the year in Charlottesville.”
Charlottesville midfielder Kyle Lehnert, the Class 4 Player of the Year, said continuity and familiarity were keys to the Black Knights’ run to their first state championship since 2004.
“We attribute our success to having a very talented, experienced group that knew how to handle tough situations in important games,” Lehnert said. “We were also a close-knit group of guys that worked together very well.”
That bond wasn’t formed overnight.
Many of these players grew up playing youth and travel soccer with club programs in Central Virginia. That high-level training coupled with the ability to face elite competition year in and year out prepared them to play in high-pressure moments such as the state tournament.
“Soccer in Central Virginia has had tremendous success over the past several years,” Albemarle girls soccer coach Amy Sherrill said. “It’s a combination that starts with our players watching and idolizing the success of UVa men’s and women’s players and teams and trickles down to the abundance of opportunities they have growing up with club programs. As athletes enter high school, most are playing club soccer at an extremely high rate and we are thankful our players have that competitive environment to grow and learn. High school programs are able to continue to build and add on the success these players have achieved in club.’’
Club programs such as SOCA (Soccer Organization of Charlottesville Area), Gradum Academy, Monticello United Soccer Club and others have instilled strong fundamentals and a competitive drive for local soccer players at an early age.
“SOCA plays a major part in making Central Virginia competitive,” Lehnert said. “The club breeds very talented players that are spread out at every school. Because of this, schools like Western Albemarle and Charlottesville have very competitive teams every year.”
Western Albemarle’s Carter Spilman is another product of the club soccer system in Charlottesville and credits the training he received over the years as part of his success.
“I think SOCA prepared me the most to branch out into high school,” he said. “I started at a really young age with those guys and the more time we were together, the better we became as a unit and as individuals. I made life-long friends on that team from all different schools in the area. Once high school rolled around, we split up for those seniors, but SOCA prepared us to be leaders and critical pieces for our high school teams.”
Alexander was introduced to soccer at the age of 3 and two years later joined the SOCA program and has been involved ever since.
“That is where I first learned to play soccer and got to figure out through the years how much the game would mean to me,” she said. “Getting the opportunity to play with and against some of the best players in the area is such a benefit when competing later at higher levels. Practicing several times a week lets every player learn the game better and over the years start to master skills which is helpful in high school programs.”
Jimmy Tharpe, the director of coaching at SOCA, said the four high school state championships are just a part of soccer success in Central Virginia this season.
SOCA recently completed a sweep of league play championships by winning overall club titles at the Elite, Premier and Classic levels.
“SOCA is extremely proud of the success many of our players had with their high school teams this past season,” Tharpe said. “Not only did many of the local area high schools have success, but high schools in the surrounding communities of Greene, Staunton, Waynesboro and Lynchburg made state runs with rosters full of SOCA players.”
Tharpe admits it’s tough to pinpoint just one reason behind the area‘s rampant soccer success this spring.
“Charlottesville has a rich soccer culture, with around 20 percent of the kids in the area playing the sport,” he said. “SOCA has a developmental pathway that starts as early as four years old and provides different levels of programming year-round. We have a lot of dedicated and hard-working players in the club that put in many hours to hone their craft. We have high-quality coaches who show a deep level of commitment to the development of these players. We have competitive leagues that allow our players to test themselves against some of the best in the region and the state.”
The players aren’t the only ones that have benefited from the club soccer programs. Coaches have as well.
“Our local high school coaches, many who have coached with SOCA, have done a fantastic job of taking these players at an important time in their development paths and putting them in a culture that allows them to showcase their talents,” Tharpe said.
Western Albemarle boys soccer coach Milo Oakland, the Class 3 Boys Coach of the Year, agreed.
“The success over a period of time at Western starts with very strong sports institutions, not just in Crozet, but also in the greater Charlottesville area,” Oakland said. “When talking about soccer specifically, Western is blessed to receive many players from SOCA that do an excellent job of developing skill and technique. By the time athletes arrive at WAHS, much of the groundwork has already been laid. This allows our coaching staff to explore different styles and formations at the high school level in an effort to amplify the strengths of our ever-changing teams.”
Charlottesville boys soccer coach Martin Braun, the Class 4 Coach of the Year, credits the athletes’ internal drive and desire to improve.
“A lot of factors contribute to this success, most importantly, these are great kids who love to play soccer,” he said. “They enjoy coming to practice for club and high school. They are smart players who know a lot about the game and tactics. A lot of these kids have been playing together for years in the travel arena and have had a lot of success there. The number of athletes going to play college soccer from the area seems to be increasing every year.”
In addition to the four state champions, several other Central Virginia teams made deep playoff runs. The Monticello girls soccer team won a regional championship and reached the Class 3 state semifinals. The Mustangs were joined in the state semifinals in Salem by eventual state champion Western Albemarle as well as William Monroe. In the private school ranks, the Covenant and St. Anne’s-Belfield girls soccer teams both reached the state semifinals this season.
Many of the players on those teams have been involved in the sport since they were young children.
“Central Virginia has such talented teams because there are plentiful opportunities,” Alexander said. “If someone wants to play soccer here, there are many different teams and programs that they can go through.”
Spilman noted that the competition within these club teams brings out the best in everyone.
“I think it has become a tradition in Central Virginia that everyone is expected to compete,” he said. “The rivalries between schools are a big part of how all teams perform so well in the postseason. I think it starts at a young age at the club level then translates into the high school stage. There is an expectation for success and it’s super exciting to contribute to and really fun to watch.”
“I was a part of the highest level of training and games for SOCA and had great coaches throughout my youth soccer career,” he said. “Being a part of a club helped me better prepare for the highest level of high school and lead by example on the field as a senior.”
Oakland gives much of the credit to the players, who have taken advantage of the local soccer infrastructure and worked hard to blossom into championship contenders.
“As strong as the youth development is and as hard as the coaches work, the success of these programs has to come down to the athletes themselves,” he said. “These kids devote large amounts of their free time to work hard and continuously improve at their sports. Most importantly, at least with my team, they did it with a light and positive attitude. They work hard because it is fun and I think that is the best motivator that exists. Ultimately, they are the ones who deserve the credit.”