The attack of Pack
Published 1:56 pm Friday, April 8, 2016
By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor
May 10, 2014 was a unique day for Scott and Melanie Pack. Austin, their oldest child, was playing for a soccer state championship in Huntsville at 12:30 p.m., as his Indian Springs team tried to cap a remarkable season with a state title. Then just a sophomore, Austin had played a key role in leading that Springs team to a 23-2-0 record, and the tiny school was a game away from capturing its first title since 2008. The prospect of watching one child play on such a big stage, particularly at such a young age, is both a thrilling and nerve-wracking endeavor for any parent. But trying to watch two children in that environment? That’s a different ballgame.
Julia, Austin’s younger sister, was also in Huntsville on May 10. But she wasn’t there to watch her older brother try to bring home his first state title, because she was busy trying to win one of her own. At that point just an eighth grader, the younger Pack had played a pivotal role on Oak Mountain’s undefeated, 25-0-1 team, and was playing opposite her brother in the 7A girls state title game, also happening at 12:30.
Scott and Melanie did their best to fully take in both games simultaneously, taking place roughly 20 feet away from each other, while both Austin and Julia tried to steal as many glances as they could over the course of their games at what was happening adjacent to them.
“I remember we started, like two minutes before them,” Julia said, reminiscing on the moment. “So halftime, our coach is talking and the whole time I was just looking at his field. And after we won I was just looking over at the other field thinking, ‘They better win, they better win.’”
“I kind of wondered what was going on,” Austin said, echoing his sister. “That game was like 1-0, and I didn’t notice the one goal, so I had no idea what was going on, I had no idea if they were going to win.”
Both Austin and Julia were crowned state champions that day. Springs beat Randolph by a 2-1 final while Oak Mountain beat Mountain Brook 1-0. The two teams finished the year with a combined 50-2-1 record, thanks in large part to the two young Pack children. Julia, who had yet to even walk the halls of the high school she had just helped bring home a state title, was also named the MVP of that Oak Mountain team by her peers, and the Lady Eagles were also declared National Champions by Maxpreps.com.
Now, two years later, Austin and Julia once again find themselves at the forefront of state championship discussions. As a senior Austin has scored 24 goals and accumulated 11 assists in 19 games as an attacking mid, leading Springs to a 16-1-2 record and the No. 1 ranking in the 1A-3A class. Julia, still just a sophomore, has scored 16 goals and has 12 assists through 18 games for the 7A No. 2 Oak Mountain Lady Eagles as a center mid. The two siblings make up the most dynamic brother/sister combination that can be found on the pitch this year in the state, and are both in positions to compete for another state title. Let’s get to know them both a little better.
Growing up soccer
The Packs, as a rule, are a small bunch. Austin, at roughly 5-foot-9-inches and maybe 140 pounds soaking wet, is considered big by family standards. The family is kind, accommodating, obviously intelligent and quick to laugh, and time has a way of slipping away when talking with them. Both children are somewhat reserved away from the field, although like their parents are quick to smile and share a laugh. They are a close-knit family, with soccer serving as one of the primary knots in their relationship.
From an early age, it was obvious both Pack children had a talent for the game. Soccer did not play a large role in either Scott or Melanie’s upbringing, but once they saw it was what their children loved to do, they were all in.
“We saw that he had an aptitude for it from an early age,” Scott said of Austin. “When the whistle blew and it was time to play, immediately he started scoring goals.”
Julia’s reason for getting and staying involved with soccer is rather simple by her own account.
“I’m not good at sports with my hands,” she explained, with a wry smile.
Since their arrival in Birmingham when both children were very small, the Packs have focused on soccer. From trips to Heardmont Park just to knock the ball around on weekends all the way through the club and Olympic Development circuits, the athletic focus for Austin and Julia has always been centered on improving on the pitch, which has helped them both blossom into the players they have become.
“One thing, when they were younger that really helped is they played 3v3,” Melanie said. “The kids that do it usually excel. We would do that in the summer, and when you play 3v3, there are only three of you out there. When you make a mistake, you know you’ve made a mistake. That really helps. It helps your skill, it helps you play faster. Every kid in their age groups who has done it are the better players.”
The Packs have supplemented their high school seasons with club and ODP soccer as well, a common theme for upper-level prep players. When they first arrived in Birmingham they played with the American Soccer Club, and now Julia plays for the Birmingham United Soccer Association, an ECNL franchise, while Austin played his club soccer for the Vestavia Hills Soccer Club. Both also have played ODP soccer over the years as well, which has improved their games. Austin has spent time playing for the Alabama state ODP team, while Julia has played on the Region III team, a team comprised of the best ODP players from 11 states across the South, and has traveled to Costa Rica to play international soccer.
The Pack children are not the players they are simply because of how many games they have played, that would be a discredit to their natural talent. But in the same breath, the amount of time they have spent around the game, from studying to playing it, has no doubt accelerated their development. They have the combination of talent and work ethic that is needed to be able to compete at a high level, but have also been blessed with parents who have been able and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to help them develop as players.
“A lot of people think that people who do this like we do, even my parents, think we’re all nuts,” Scott said. “This is our way of life, this is what we do. And we do it because they love it.”
It’s been a while now since Austin and Julia have gone to the same school. Austin has been at Indian Springs since his eighth grade year, transferring from Oak Mountain, and has spent the entirety of his high school career at the small private school. The decision to attend Springs was his own, and was something of a surprise to his parents at first.
“We were surprised when he brought it up,” Scott said. “It was surprising for one because Oak Mountain was such a soccer school and he was such a soccer guy. But Springs, unbeknownst to us, was a soccer school too.”
Austin had seen Springs play before he enrolled, and that was no doubt a contributing factor to his decision, but, at the time just a seventh grader, he made the decision primarily for academic reasons.
“I first heard about Indian Springs from a friend who was going there who I knew from playing club soccer,” Austin said. “He was going there because of the academics. So I looked into it, and it’s a great academic school, so I applied and got in.”
Although the two have not gone to school together for some time, their growth and similarities on the pitch are uncanny. Both play roughly the same position, attacking center mid, and both of their high school coaches have similar things to say about the two.
Austin began accumulating caps as a young, scrawny freshman and now has the chance to win 100 games in his high school career. His head coach, Rik Tozzi, has had the chance to watch him since his arrival at Springs, and knows his game better than almost anyone.
“Austin is a true No. 10,” said Tozzi said of his senior midfielder. “What that means is he’s basically the quarterback of the team. He brings three qualities you want any No. 10 to have. First is vision, the ability to see the game developing. Second is his ability to get forward in the attack. The third thing, which is really important, is his ability to calm the game down with his passing. Soccer, especially at the high school level, can get frenetic, and you need someone who can take the air out of the ball and calm things down. He’s a coach’s dream.”
Oak Mountain head coach David DiPiazza has similar praise to give Julia. DiPiazza has won 12 Alabama high school state titles as a player and a coach, and has been around high school soccer for the majority of his life, and believes Julia to be among the best he’s ever seen.
“She’s the best player I’ve ever coached,” DiPiazza said. “She is an extremely intelligent soccer player, her detail and her study of the game is incredible. She’ll go and watch other teams play like I do. I go and scout our opposition; Julia goes and scouts our opposition. She’s constantly seeing how she can get better, and I’ve never seen a guy or a girl really do that like she does. She’s a very intelligent player, but what she can do with the ball is nothing I’ve really seen a girl soccer player do. Her thought, her ability to hit a pass, the weight of the pass, the accuracy of the pass, she does things with a ball that I’ve probably seen three high school players do who play her position.”
While the schools they represent are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of size, the way they both play the game is almost identical.
Divide and Conquer
The Pack siblings themselves don’t get to see the other play all that often. Last season, Austin got to watch Julia win her second-straight state title after Springs was eliminated by eventual 1A-3A champion Westminster, but as a general rule the two rarely get the chance to stop and be spectators for the other. Divide and conquer has been the mantra of the Pack family over the last few years, with Scott and Melanie routinely splitting up to watch their children play.
At the culmination of this season, however, Austin will leave the high school ranks to join the men’s soccer team at Wheaton College outside of Chicago. The time remaining where both Pack children are in high school is rapidly waning, and the chance for either to see the other in a high school uniform will either be impossible in Julia’s case, or difficult in Austin’s as he will be at school some 700 miles away. While both would no doubt relish the chance to watch the other play more than they do, if all goes to plan this season and both teams make deep playoff runs, success could actually be measured by how few games the two get to watch.
The 1A-3A boys championship game this season is slated for May 13 at 7:30 p.m., while the 7A girls championship game will take place on May 14 at 10 a.m. If both teams make it that far, the Packs will not have to run frantically back and forth between two fields this year time around, and Austin and Julia will get the chance to stop and watch the other. While neither are promised storybook endings to this season, betting against either one seems like a mistake.
After all, they have been here before.