Valerie Raby figured she always would be playing soccer at the highest level. She was a young goal-scoring phenom who had made all the right moves and impressed all the right people. She was a regional Olympic Development Program player, a Charles County player of the year and a second-team All-Met at Westlake High School. But in the spring of 1998, as she was finishing her junior year, her dreams of a college scholarship appeared to crash.

Raby found out she was pregnant.

"It was my dream to go to college from the first time I kicked a soccer ball," Raby said. Westlake and Raby "were known around the county, and all of a sudden I had to quit. I really didn't know if it was the end of my career."

It wasn't. Charles County Community College women's coach Bill Ellin would make sure that Raby played college soccer.

Raby, now 18, gave birth to a daughter, Trinity, in October 1998, and returned to Westlake for her final semester before enrolling at Charles County this fall. Ellin, who had coached Raby's older brother and had seen Raby come out to his practices when she was younger, was familiar with her abilities and eager to get her involved as he worked to rebuild a struggling women's soccer program.

"I kept track of Valerie's career all through high school and through her club teams," Ellin said. "When I was given this job last January, it became apparent that I only had one returning player. [Raby] was the first person I called. She's a dominating player when she steps on the field."

Raby struggled to get back into shape, but once she did, her goal-scoring touch returned. Through Charles County's 17-game regular season, Raby had 20 goals and five assists and helped the Hawks, who played most of a difficult schedule with 11 or 12 players, to an 8-8-1 record. Charles County will open the Region XX tournament today at Essex Community College.

Raby's goal total could have been higher. Ellin said he always pulls his team back when it takes a big lead, and Raby did not score more than two goals in any match this season.

"In a game against Prince George's, Valerie scored the first two goals, and I didn't even have to tell her to back off," Ellin recalled. "She started to pass the ball off and drop back on defense. She's an all-around player, and she made a lot of girls better players this year."

In fact, when asked to recount highlights of her first season of college soccer, Raby mentioned an Oct. 12 game against Anne Arundel, a national power that built a 6-0 halftime lead. Raby moved back to sweeper, and the Hawks held Anne Arundel to just one second-half goal.

"We kept our heads up and worked our butts off the whole time and never gave up," she said. "We were loving it. They were so frustrated."

But it will be as a striker that Raby makes her impression--and Raby hopes she will have a chance to make an impression at a Division I school eventually.

"She can bring another dimension to a team, and that is the ability of one player to dominate a defense," Ellin said. "She forces another team to double-mark [defending Raby with two players]. She has excellent foot skills, she can beat players one on one, and when she sets up to shoot, she has a nose for knowing where the goal is."

"She is very much a team player, beyond the skills," said Jim Johnson, who coached Raby at Westlake. "She's very inspiring, and she would enthuse and motivate other players during unique situations. Her skills were really the predominant factor of why we did so well, even at that early time."

Raby initially was worried that those skills might have faded when she returned to the field this fall.

"I wanted to play again so bad, but I was afraid if I got out and I wasn't as good as before, people would say things," she said. "But I started playing indoor with Bill in the spring, and after a couple of games I started to get some goals and get some confidence back."

The goals have come, and the rest of her life has started falling into place as well. Raby is living with her parents in Waldorf and taking five classes at Charles County, where she hopes to enter the nursing program next year. She is engaged to Trinity's father, Josh Baucom, and is enjoying being a mother.

In addition, Westlake will acknowledge Raby's return to the game and her contribution to the soccer program with a ceremony next Tuesday night, just before the new Southern Maryland Athletic Conference champions begin the Maryland 3A South playoffs. Johnson called Raby, who scored 61 goals in three seasons with the Wolverines, "one of the founders of the program."

All that is left for Raby now is her dream of playing big-time college soccer.

"Before, I figured colleges would come to me. But now I have to go to them, to let them know what I can do," Raby said. "It's a whole different point of view, but sometimes you just have to do what you have to. I just know that I want to succeed in soccer."

CAPTION: "I was afraid if I got out and I wasn't as good as before, people would say things," Raby says of her layoff.

CAPTION: Valerie Raby, shown firing a shot on goal during practice, has tallied 20 goals and five assists for Charles County Community College this fall.