Soccer story flies under local radar

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Soccer may be growing in popularity, but the sport still hasn’t reached the magnitude shared by high school football, baseball, basketball and other sports in Shelby County.

That fact was bicycle-kicked home during the past few weeks as the Oak Mountain Eagles managed to fly a No. 1 national ranking safely under the local radar.

The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) first ranked Oak Mountain’s boys soccer team the top high school squad in the country in its April 26 poll.

The Eagles held the spot in the May 10 poll.

Cindy Warner, a spokesperson for Shelby County Schools, got an e-mail about the ranking.

Warner said she was planning to prepare a press release for the honor but was told to nix the idea to keep the team from shouldering any unwelcome pressure that local media coverage might create.

Just how much extra pressure would have been generated by a feature story in the Reporter or other media outlets is unclear.

But don’t think the players weren’t well aware of their lofty perch when each NSCAA poll was released.

And you can bet each of the Eagles’ opponents knew they were playing for a chance to unseat the No. 1 team in the nation.

Still, someone was concerned that a little local media coverage would create a burden much too heavy to bear.

In any other high school sport, there would have been phone calls and e-mails.

A good number of each roll in from parents and fans of teams who have accomplished much less than this special group at Oak Mountain.

I didn’t even hear about the school’s place in the poll until the news surfaced in local media coverage last week.

The tale of the Eagles’ rise to national prominence in high school soccer is a great story.

I only wish we could have shared it earlier.

That shouldn’t take away from a great accomplishment by Oak Mountain’s players or interim coach Ryan Patridge, who took over when Derek Dearman was forced to leave the team behind for military duty in Iraq.

And soccer may not have reached the frenzied level of football and other sports yet, but it’s well on its way.

In Shelby County, at least, it’s just a matter of time.

While the dominance of area teams in the AHSAA state playoffs is an indicator of the role soccer plays here – teams from Shelby County accounted for nearly a quarter of semifinals participants statewide and claimed two titles – the real strength of the movement starts from the ground up.

Groups like the Chelsea Soccer Club have seen their membership double and even triple in recent years, making soccer one of the hottest youth sports going.

And club teams like the American Jets help players keep their soccer skills sharp year round.

So, for the meantime, high school soccer may be just outside the realm of the big three, but the sport is in a class by itself in terms of its growth and future.

Ashley Vansant is the sports editor at the Shelby County Reporter. He can be reached at