Huge changes are coming to high school soccer in Southeastern North Carolina, and the Wilmington Hammerheads Youth Club hopes the long-term effects create more collegiate players from the area.
Many of the best boys soccer players in the Wilmington area won't be playing the sport at the high school level this fall. The Hammerheads are starting a "SuperCup Team", which will be invite-only for 30 players.
It will practice four times a week and feature a full fall schedule against other elite clubs. Youth teams from MLS franchises in Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., will all be on the schedule.
This new program, however, will force athletes to sacrifice their high school soccer careers.
"The most important part of a soccer player’s diet is who they are playing with in training, who they are playing against in games, and are these two environments consistently testing, challenging and essentially forcing these players to improve," Hammerheads Executive Director Carson Porter said.
"The players who will be a part of our first SuperCup class are players who love to compete, who want to be challenged and tested, and who have a ton of fun in this type of environment."
Increasing Division I Dreams for Wilmington Soccer Players
According to Porter, this is a necessary step for the soccer landscape in Wilmington. He says the sport is unique because a significant amount of boys players throughout the country, including markets like Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro, do not play high school soccer.
Porter stressed that 100 percent of collegiate soccer recruiting comes from a player's club experiences, and some of the most important tournaments to play in front of college coaches occur in the late fall or early winter.
The 30-player pool will feature two teams. At tournaments and in games, Porter said the Hammerheads will split into two different age groups, but there will be no age labels within the league.
Porter believes this is the next logical step for a club growing both in size and pedigree.
Joining the SuperCup will be no extra charge for families inside the Hammerheads program. The only extra cost will be for an end-of-the-year trip, hopefully to Europe, to attend matches and compete against other professional academies.
As of now, there are no plans to immediately create a similar girls club team because of its landscape.
"Ninety percent of the best girls soccer players in our country will play high school soccer, so our girls are on that level playing field," Porter said. "The boys side is the complete opposite. At least 50 percent of players who go on to college aren't in high school soccer. Our boys are at a disadvantage to half of the country. It's comparing apples to oranges."
There is local evidence to back Porter's claim. In recent years, only a handful of Wilmington boys soccer players have gone on to receive Division I scholarships. Cape Fear Academy's Holt Robison (Colgate), Hoggard's Cameron Thayer (Winthrop), Jimmy Glendenning (Coastal Carolina) and Brody Hoffacker (High Point) all graduated in the last three years.
However, the local girls scene is riddled with college talent. Just this year, Ashley's McKenna Gardner (UNCW) and Maleah Bainer (Kennesaw State) signed with Division I programs. Hoggard's Ainsley Norr (UNCW), Sophia Southerland (App State) and Summer Beesley (George Washington) join North Brunswick's Daysha Chaney (UNC-Asheville) as 2021 graduates going to play college soccer. There's also already a line of commits in future years like Laney's Taylor Chism (NC State) and Chloe Wright (Oklahoma State). Hoggard's Lilly Smiley committed to the College of Charleston Monday.
High Schools Defend Success, Coaching
Porter held meetings or sent information to all six Wilmington high school coaches to explain the SuperCup's mission. New Hanover, Hoggard, Laney, Ashley, Coastal Christian and Cape Fear Academy will all lose players to the SuperCup team.
The initial reactions from high school coaches were shock and disappointment.
New Hanover head coach TJ Rennie is only expecting to lose one player, but he's worried about the area's high school soccer scene in the years to come.
"In the short term, I'm very glad that our New Hanover players value what we do and have chosen to continue playing high school soccer," Rennie said. "The long-term impacts however, if the Hammerheads' program is successful, would be very detrimental to high school soccer in Wilmington."
Hoggard head coach Dwight Findlay won't be as lucky as Rennie. The Vikings will be losing at least 10 players this fall, and Findlay said he believes if given the choice, all of his players would elect to do both.
Findlay also disagrees with Porter's notion that high school soccer doesn't benefit the players, especially with the quality of local coaches and programs. He also believes the biggest key to developing college talent is at the younger levels, before players ever reach high school soccer.
However, Findlay also understands this decision is up to athletes and their families, knowing the Hammerheads are going to provide an elite level of training.
"Some kids were very emotional," Findlay said. "Some feel they had to make this choice because they want to see how far they can take their ability in this game, and they might miss opportunities to play at the higher level. I understand that philosophy. I understand the want to play the highest level of competition, and at the end of the day we're going to support our players making decisions they think is best for their development."
There were also high emotions for some players not invited to participate with the SuperCup team. Findlay said there has been serious disappointment from older players who no longer get to play high school soccer with their friends and worry about their team's success after losing such talented players.
Mark Wilson is a former player at New Hanover High who now has a son, Van Wilson, on the Hoggard varsity team. Mark went on to play at Barton College and understands the need to play the best competition. Still, he wishes these players had the opportunity to to both.
"As time progressed, many kids on Hoggard were committing to super league," Mark said. "On one account, you don’t want to discourage potential opportunities for gifted players in our area, but on the other hand, I would hate it if these players get a couple years down the road and regret missing those great high school memories we all experienced. For now, we've moved on and we are excited about what Hoggard can accomplish this season."
When this decision was announced by the Hammerheads, high school coaches and athletic directors saw it as direct competition for their student-athletes.
Porter knows the first year will be challenging, but he also hopes the two sides can continue their working relationship, trying to develop the best soccer players in Southeastern North Carolina.
“This is not required and this is not for everyone. It is something that is initially being offered to a select group of talented players," Porter said. "We will have a lot of boys that play high school soccer in the fall and then come back to the Hammerheads in the winter and rejoin their teams, which is great. The majority of Hammerheads players will continue to play high school soccer and we will continue to support high school soccer.”
Reporter Jackson Fuller can be reached at Jackson.Fuller@StarNewsOnline.com or 910-343-2262.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Wilmington Hammerheads's 'SuperCup' team take athletes out of HS play