Oakton’s girls’ soccer team produced a pair of wins last Thursday night.
The Cougars used a pair of goals by freshman striker Tess Sapone to dispatch rival Robinson, 2-1, and move into second place in the Concorde District; and they teamed up with D.C. United’s community service foundation, United for D.C., to collect a Honda Element’s worth of new and lightly used soccer equipment for distribution to an after school program in Washington. The gear drive was the centerpiece of Oakton’s third annual youth soccer appreciation night, organized by players and the school’s boosters, designed to expose aspiring young soccer players to the thrills of a varsity soccer game at Oakton.
While kids who attended the game wearing their team’s jersey got in free and played in a halftime scrimmage under the lights, D.C. United defenseman Daniel Woolard, a Texas native who lives in Fairfax during the season, was the key attraction. Woolard, 28, who is in his third season with Washington’s pro soccer team, patiently answered questions, signed autographs and took photos with young players like Eleanor Newman, a sixth-grader at Oakton Elementary who plays for the Annandale Extreme.
Newman’s team hasn’t been too successful this year — “we’ve lost a lot of games,” she said — but she’s already been indoctrinated into the club soccer life. She eats dinner in the car as her mother shuttles her to games and practices, and stays up late (going to bed at 9:30 or 10 p.m.) in order to finish homework. Her goal is to play soccer at Oakton one day, but she knows she’ll have to practice hard in the next three years to make the team in ninth grade.
“I need a harder shot and a better throw-in,” she said, after getting an autograph from Woolard, who also had his own prescription for improving the quality of play in the U.S.
“I wish I would have been pushed more towards on-the-ball technical stuff,” said Woolard, who grew up in a baseball and football-crazed suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth. “But then again, who knows how much hand-eye coordination helped me in soccer, playing football and basketball growing up. It’s hard to tell.”
Young players donned green practice jerseys — which reached to the shoe-tops of the littlest ones — and scrambled around on the field during halftime, bringing a smile to the faces of parents and fans. “At that age, it’s just 20 kids chasing after a ball,” said one parent, laughing. But the experience of running around during the intermission of a varsity game can be a formative one.
“I actually live a lot closer to Chantilly and used to play for CYA and we would go to the Chantilly games and wear our youth team jerseys,” said Oakton senior Maggie Toye. “I remember it was the coolest thing. You thought they were superstars.”
Captain Katie Veltman, a junior, agreed. “My neighbors used to play here and I would come to watch them. It was always very encouraging to see people you know out there being successful,” she said.
Lauren Ebert, a second-year assistant coach for the Cougars, grew up in New Jersey. She said she’s been impressed with all the opportunities kids have to play soccer in Northern Virginia. “The quality of talent and work ethic is great here,” said Ebert, who teaches at Crossfield Elementary.
As a professional soccer player, Woolard said events like this one give him a chance to put his role in the game in perspective. Even though soccer has been big as a participatory sport in the U.S. for over a generation, the dividends on the international level have only just begun to surface.
“[I’d like] to see if I can help improve young players so the national team will be better in the future, allow younger players to develop faster than we did,” he said.
Young athletes can’t develop if they’re missing time with injuries, however. And while twisted ankles may be more common in youth soccer than concussions, head injuries do happen. Woolard missed a chunk of D.C. United’s season last year with a concussion.
“There are a lot more concussions [in soccer] than people think,” he said. “And it’s tough for a player who’s had a headache for the last three days to say something since they want to play. … If you have that type of injury, take it seriously and tell somebody so you can have it looked at and take the proper time off.”