Fourth in an occasional series on how area high school athletes are spending their summers with hopes of continuing their sports careers in college.
Heather Cooke's summer club soccer schedule is more than a little unusual.
"It's actually pretty hard," said Cooke, a rising senior at Leonardtown. "It's insane."
It's not so much the caliber of players Cooke competes with, but rather where those players meet four or five times a week to practice.
For the past year, Cooke has traveled back and forth from her California, Md., home to practice and play with the Bethesda Extreme, the under-17 team of the Bethesda Soccer Club. Depending on the season, practices are held either at Welsh Park in Rockville or at George Washington University's Mount Vernon Campus in Northwest Washington. Games are played primarily throughout the mid-Atlantic states, although the team left yesterday for a tournament in San Diego.
Cooke's commute is about two hours each way, whether she is leaving from home or directly from school after its 2:45 p.m. dismissal. Extreme Coach Dave Greene excuses Cooke from a couple of practices each week during the school year, but Cooke wouldn't miss any if the two-hour sessions could start a little later than 4 p.m.
This is the sacrifice Cooke makes for her passion: playing competitive soccer with the goal of landing on a Division I college roster.
"I'm so glad I did this," said Cooke, who won't turn 17 until Christmas day. "It was the best decision I ever made for soccer."
For ambitious players, much like for those in basketball, soccer's high school season is a complement to the year-round club season, which peaks in the summer with national tournaments and showcases in front of college coaches.
"I think soccer has become so competitive that you need to play in the offseason," Leonardtown Coach Jennifer Henderson said. "You need to keep up with the other kids who play year-round."
The rest of the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference's girls' soccer teams have combined to win two regional titles, one less than the Raiders have won in Henderson's 11 seasons with the program. It would seem that if college coaches know about one Southern Maryland soccer team, it would be Leonardtown.
"How do I get noticed?" said Cooke, who had 13 goals and nine assists for the Raiders last season en route to being named first-team all-state. "I live all the way down in St. Mary's County. No one knows about us down here."
Each summer, Henderson takes her team to a week-long college camp with a few other school teams and as many as 200 individual players. This year, the Raiders went to the Naval Academy. Last year, it was UNC Wilmington. Three years ago, they went to Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, where Slippery Rock Coach Noreen Herlihy met Lauren Steele, who was then a rising senior at Leonardtown and who just completed her sophomore season at Slippery Rock.
Camps might attract the college coaches who track the club circuit year-round. But there are many coaches who recruit solely at club tournaments -- where so much talent is gathered in one location -- rather than going to dozens of high schools or camps.
Club soccer "is probably the most important thing to do, especially if you live in St. Mary's County," Cooke said. "It's so important because that's where [college] coaches look first because everyone is playing at a higher level."
And that's what Cooke had to reconcile after she tried out and was offered a spot with the Extreme last year. The Bethesda Soccer Club is highly regarded in recruiting circles. Its teams travel to high-profile tournaments each year, and its players frequently go on to play in college.
Plus, Cooke saw how her brother Jason, a former goalie who graduated from Leonardtown in 2002, struggled to gain recruiters' attention. After playing for a club team in Calvert County, Jason Cooke ended up playing two seasons as an invited walk-on at the University of Pittsburgh before leaving the team to play for a club team and finish working on his degree.
Heather Cooke knows she has to market more than her soccer skills to recruiters. NCAA rules allow women's soccer teams a maximum of 12 scholarships, but rosters have upward of 25 players.
"Guess who's going to get the most money? The upperclassmen," said Cooke's father, Terry. "You have to earn your money."
Coaches said students good enough to get partial athletic scholarships have an easier time trying to get an academic scholarship to cover most or all of the rest of school expenses.
"A whole lot of my players who have gotten scholarships in the past have gotten a combination of academic and athletic," Henderson said.
Cooke said she is surprised that many players -- and their parents -- are stunned to learn that very few soccer players receive full athletic scholarships. Cooke knew that, but is still trying to get a full scholarship with her soccer skills and 3.8 grade-point average.
"I don't think people know. They think it's so much easier than it really is," Cooke said. "There are barely any full scholarships. If you're just a player, you're probably not going anywhere."
That's why Cooke spends plenty of time on the road, hoping she can continue her soccer career after high school. During the school year, Terry Cooke had to leave work early, pick up his daughter from school and drive her to practices because Heather did not have a school parking permit.
Now Heather makes the long drives by herself. Traffic is a lot worse in Rockville and the District than in St. Mary's County, and it's an especially tiring drive after a grueling practice.
She hopes, though, that the interest Loyola, Monmouth and UNC Wilmington have shown in her this summer will result in a scholarship.
"It's a huge pain in the butt, but we knew it going in," Terry Cooke said. "Next year, she'll be gone and I'll have no regrets."