The high school experience for dozens of the state’s best girls’ soccer players will be without the sport they love most.
Fifty-four players left their high school teams this season to play full-time with the Minnesota Thunder Academy, which competes nationally against top talent in the expanding Elite Clubs National League season. Next year, the number is expected to increase to 72.
The change results from the elite league’s season, which now spans 11 months, overlapping the fall high school season and putting it at odds with the Minnesota State High School League.
The league prohibits athletes in most sports from competing with non-school teams during the season.
That led to the mass exodus of top high school-aged players to the Thunder Academy, seeking a higher level of play and potential college exposure.
Athletes, coaches and parents believe there should be room to play for both high school and club-level teams. But the departures this season have left high school coaches with big holes to fill on their rosters and Thunder Academy-committed players unable to represent their schools this fall.
Armstrong junior Holly Enderle required a list of pros and cons to help choose between high school or ECNL soccer. While she wanted to play high-level soccer for a respected club, traveling with that club would keep her apart from family and friends every other weekend.
One item outweighed everything on the 16-year-old’s list, prompting her to remain at Armstrong.
“I don’t think I was ready to give up the majority of things I enjoy in high school,” Enderle said. “I was definitely honored to have a chance to be a part of the ECNL team. But high school sports have been such a big part of my high school experience.”
ECNL models its approach to the boys’ U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Unlike the boys’ program, which ruled its athletes cannot also play high school soccer, ECNL allows girls to participate on prep teams.
Minnesota Thunder Academy’s ECNL director Danny Storlien said he lost friends over the change implemented this fall. Families and coaches were angry with Storlien, believing it was Storlien’s rule that led to the mass departure of high school standouts.
The Thunder Academy’s website, however, says there are no club or ECNL rules barring players from high school soccer and reminds visitors it’s a MSHSL rule.
Other states around the country are facing similar high school participation problems, but Minnesota’s fall high school season is an exception in the Midwest. Most surrounding states compete in the spring and allow girls to co-participate with club teams.
Exceptions and exemptions
Five Thunder Academy ECNL teams — one for each age 14 to 18 — will play against what are touted as the best 73 youth clubs in the nation. Elite development and increased exposure to college coaches are promised.
But because the extended competition comes into conflict with the state high school league bylaw that prohibits athletes from competing on a non-school team in the same sport during the high school season, many players, parents and coaches said there were numerous heartbroken and tear-filled moments as players decided between high school or the ECNL.
Baseball, softball and skiing are exempt from the bylaw, according to the high school league’s handbook. A sport such as girls’ soccer could seek an exemption for next season, but member schools would need to apply by the yearly deadline of Oct. 15.