Lisa Joel soon will enter her 20th season coaching at Phillips Andover, a spell that’s brought about four Class A titles. From that success, she’s gained valuable insights into the complexion of girls prep school soccer.
As she reflects on her two decades, the Rhode Island native highlights marked changes over the past decade.
“In the early half of my coaching, there would be that super talented player at Loomis (Chaffee) or how there was Steph McCaffrey at (Buckingham Browne & Nichols School),” Joel said. “They were special and elite and in a class all of their own. Then what happened, the base has grown, it’s much more deep.”
There still are the elite players — just this fall, Thayer Academy striker Brittany Raphino (Randolph, Mass.), Noble and Greenough midfielder Allie Winstanley (Concord, Mass.) and Tabor striker Cat Barry (Hingham, Mass.) all will compete — but the talent level and recruiting efforts have swelled across the board. That’s the sentiment, at least, that Worcester Academy coach Jen Marino harps on before she enters her sixth season.
“The pool has never been deeper in girls soccer because of the platform given to kids over the last five years that even 10 years ago didn’t even exist,” Marino said. “The quality of play of girls soccer in New England has gone up and the pool is incredibly unique.”
Joel and Marino capture the ever-changing girls’ youth soccer landscape. And it is a setup where prep schools still are seeking out their niche.
Preps, at most, take up three months in the fall, leaving players on Elite Clubs National League, Development Academy or National Premier League teams from Thanksgiving through as late as mid-July. Those club seasons bring about national-level showcase events, and the end goal of playing college soccer — especially with women’s professional options fleeting — still largely comes from club soccer exposure.
But Lauren Ames, entering her fifth season as St. Mark’s head coach, has noticed a shift. In greater numbers, college coaches are viewing prep games as prime recruiting opportunities. They’re bringing in those top-level club players — from FC Stars, FC Boston, NEFC, Connecticut FC, etc. — so NEPSAC tournament games often are filled with Division 1 and 3 commits.
“They used to just call the club coach, but it’s growing where college coaches are tapping into us prep ones too,” Ames said. “I understand that at a club showcase you get to see more players, but there’s still value in coming out on a Wednesday or a Saturday.”
Added Graeme Blackman, entering his fourth year as coach at Buckingham Browne & Nichols: “It’s honestly a high level of soccer. Tie that in with the chance to play for your community and be a multi-dimensional person, it’s powerful.”
But where do prep schools fit into the broader youth soccer landscape? That’s the million-dollar question, Joel said, and she hopes its place extends beyond the soccer field.
She believes the “tension is definitely real” at times between clubs and preps, particularly because the DA’s full-year calendar means few girls are given waivers to play for their school. Even after the fall, when prep soccer players might have been two- or three-sport athletes, the rigors and demands of club soccer can be all-consuming.
“What I always say to my girls is the reality is for pretty much all of you, at 22 when you graduate, you’re hanging up your cleats,” Joel said. “So let’s see how soccer allows you to really develop as a human being in society and as a student. The game ends.”
While prep tuitions push north of $40,000 in some cases, financial aid often is an option. As club soccer has grown, that’s opened the door to families who otherwise might not have have believed preps were even a possibility for them, Ames said.
“With the amount of soccer these kids are playing, to have some balance in the prep school world outside of soccer, it plays into the experience of educating the whole child,” Ames said. “That’s a huge advantage, and honestly isn’t usually found elsewhere.”
Blackman granted that preps aren’t for everyone — the price point may be too high and others might not want to leave their communities — but he believes they certainly have a place as youth soccer continues to grow.
Plus, unlike how international students often are the elite players in boys’ preps, their student-athlete population is largely from New England. Some schools — Hotchkiss, Choate Rosemary Hall, etc. — are home to internationals, but the local, top-level club players still comprise the bulk of the rosters.
It all adds up to a complimentary, education-driven piece to club soccer, Blackman said. And Division 1 college standouts such as striker Christina Farrell (Wallingford, Conn./Georgetown/Choate), goalkeepers Christina Etzel (Madison, Conn./Brown/Loomis Chaffee) and Brooke Heinsohn (Norfolk, Mass./Duke/Rivers), and midfielder Maria DiMartinis (Norwell, Mass./Harvard/Milton Academy) only prove that preps can keep the college soccer end goal thriving.
“Preps really compliments players who want to play high-level club,” Blackman said. “I think it allows girls to have the experience for your school, playing for your community, but doing it without sacrificing quality.”