Tess Sapone, right, felt pressure to choose between her elite club soccer team and playing for Oakton. She is one of several top area players faced with the same difficult decision this spring. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Pen and pad in hand, FC Virginia under-17 girls’ club soccer Coach Terry Foley went down the roster and asked the same, simple question following one January practice: “High school or no high school?”

Tess Sapone had always enjoyed playing for Oakton High , but as her teammates voted one by one against joining their school teams this spring, Sapone fell into line. “I knew I wanted to play high school, but with everybody sitting there, it was kind of a peer pressure thing,” said Sapone, a Florida commit.

A few weeks later, Sapone conceded to her heart and committed to play for Oakton, a decision that teammate and fellow junior Anya Heijst also made a day later. The 19 other FC Virginia players — five of whom were All-Mets last spring, including Stone Bridge’s Briana Alston and Emily Fox and Briar Woods’s Lauren Kelly — chose to skip the high school season.

The outcome has spurred both concern and debate within the local girls’ soccer community. Few observers argue with the superior development and college exposure offered by club teams, and a rising number of players have elected to forgo the American tradition of representing their high schools on the pitch.

“The high school experience for females, you can’t replace that, and there are very, very few kids who fit the elite mold of kids who should not play high school,” said Chantilly Coach Melissa Bibbee, who also coaches at the middle school level for the Southwestern Youth Association . “The fact that some coaches are scaring these kids and parents into thinking they will lose scholarships if they play high school is absolutely unacceptable.”

Foley, who founded FC Virginia in 2006, said he never gave such an ultimatum to his team, but his desire for his players to place a singular focus on club was no secret. One week after Virginia crowned its state champions last June, Foley’s team headed to the U-16 Elite Clubs National League national playoffs. There, the team recorded just one win in three games and failed to emerge from its group draw.

“We don’t win because kids are tired from high school,” said Foley, who is also FC Virginia’s president and director of coaching. “Certain players want to play at the highest level; they don’t want to mess around in high school. For other people, they have different goals, and that’s okay. It was a team decision, not a club or coach decision.”


Lauren Kelly (11) helped lead Briar Woods to the Virginia 5A state title last spring. This year she is focusing exclusively on club soccer. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Centreville midfielder Ashley Andersen (4) played for the Virginia 6A state runner-up Wildcats last season, but she made the decision to play only club soccer this spring. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Both Foley and most high school coaches agree that it’s nearly impossible to shoulder a load like Jenna Richmond did as the nation’s top recruit in 2010, when she played soccer and ran cross country at Centreville while competing for two club teams and the under-20 women’s national team. Not with players vying for recruiting stars from scouts and attention from the college coaches who populate the sidelines at club showcases.

The club circuit pulls together top talent from various regions for highly competitive tournaments across the nation. But with Virginia as one of just 20 states to play high school soccer during the spring — the same season that features a number of key dates on the club and college recruiting calendar — juggling both can be daunting.

Virginia Tech Coach Charles Adair said that balance — not whether an athlete plays high school — is paramount when considering a player’s future and livelihood, which is why many club and high school coaches work together.

“From a developmental standpoint, there’s no doubt, in my mind anyways, that club soccer is better for you. If you want to become a better player, that’s probably where your focus should be,” U-17 McLean ECNL Coach Clyde Watson said. “But there is a social element that you get from playing high school, and I think that that’s important, too.”

While Foley notes that many of FC Virginia’s other teams feature players who split time with high school, including his own daughter, he also says he would “never tell them to put high school before club.”

For Fox, a sophomore North Carolina commit who led Stone Bridge to last year’s Virginia 5A state final, that meant putting her high school career on hold so she could focus on FC Virginia’s U-17 team and the U-18 women’s national team.

“It was definitely a hard decision because I loved playing high school,” said Fox, who hasn’t closed the door on returning to high school play. “Everyone had their opinions, and we all knew what our goals were, and in order to meet those goals, high school couldn’t be in the picture this year for me.”

Fox is one of 16 players on her club team committed to play at the Division I level.

Last year, the NCAA’s 328 Division I women’s soccer teams averaged 14 players holding at least a partial scholarship, according to scholarshipstats.com. With so few spots and the lack of a stable professional women’s league, some high school coaches feel many clubs are selling a false hope.

“These girls have been groomed to think they are going to get a scholarship, and families want their investment back, so a lot of these girls feel so much pressure to where if they don’t get one, they feel they will be a total disappointment,” Briar Woods Coach Ann Vierkorn said.

While the reality is that many players will miss out on their dream of being a college scholarship athlete, the club market has become much more lucrative for those in charge.

“The more people you have making a living off coaching club soccer, the more they are going to demand of the players being fully attentive on what they’re doing because they have a lot of leverage,” said one area high school coach, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his comments.

Though that trend isn’t likely to extinguish high school soccer as a whole, the number of players who feel they have a choice to compete on that stage may diminish in time.

“Everyone should be able to choose what they want to do,” said Sapone, who is slated to play for the Washington Spirit’s U-20 team this summer. “Even though it was a really tough decision and high school isn’t necessarily the best level of play, I want to look back and say I made the right decision for myself.”