By Ray Hamill — It seems there are more and more opportunities for local soccer players here on the North Coast these days, and it seems as if more and more of them are taking advantage of those opportunities.
Last weekend, six players from Humboldt County traveled to Phoenix as part of the NorCal Olympic Development Program, an incredible number of local participants considering the prestigious nature of such an invite.
Included were a trio of standouts from Eureka High School — Keylei Carroll, Klayre Barres and Aquene Tollefson — as well as Fortuna’s Sarah Killfoil, all four of them juniors and chosen for their age group’s 18-player roster, which features the very best players from throughout the entire Northern half of the state.
In addition, two local boys were also chosen for the ODP in their age group, McKinleyville High freshman Lalo Benavides-Garb and Sunny Brae seventh-grader Izaiah Grosveld.
To get the opportunity to play in the ODP, a player must first be recommended by a recognized coach or club and then go through a series of tryouts to make the 36-player practice roster, from which the 18-player travel roster is chosen for tournaments.
For Carroll and Barres, this is their second year with the program, having also made the NorCal travel roster in 2019, with Carroll getting a call up to the Western United States regional roster in 2019, something she hopes to achieve again in 2020.
“Honestly, the experience was amazing,” said Carroll, a co-MVP in the H-DNL this past season. “I think it was better this year than last year. This year we played a lot more together. More as a team than as individuals.”
And that’s a big part of what the ODP is about. It’s not only the pathway to the national team, but also a way for these players to develop their game individually while learning how to play as part of a highly competitive unit.
“It was fun,” said Killfoil, who has played alongside her Eureka rivals for years on local travel teams. “It was nice to see a whole different level of play that was faster and better than I ever played before.
“I really loved the challenge.”
The four high school juniors played four games in Phoenix, helping their NorCal ODP team to three wins, while showcasing their talents to scouts and college recruiters.
All four also play together on the recently-established Sequoia FC, a local club founded by HSU women’s head coach Paul Karver to help with local players’ development and get them some college exposure.
A fifth local girl — Eureka’s Brynn Hales — is also a member of Sequoia FC and is on the same ODP 36-player practice roster.
“To have that many players in the mix really is exciting,” Karver said.
It’s also a testament to how far the game has evolved here on the North Coast, especially for the girls, who celebrated 25 years of H-DNL soccer this past fall.
But they’re not the only local players receiving attention from such a prestigious program as the ODP.
Benavides-Garb and Grosveld each also made their 18-player travel rosters for last weekend’s Western Region championships, a fantastic achievement for each.
And, according to their coach Andy O’Brien, both have worked hard for the chance.
“Honestly what makes these kids special is their love for it all,” said O’Brien, who trains the players at the Humboldt Soccer Academy and the Briceno Soccer Club, which is based out of Petaluma.
“First of all, they have really amazing support from their families, and then they have the love for it, and the mindset. They aren’t intimidated by the higher quality. They’re mentally focused.
“And another thing that makes them special is they train all the time. Any opportunity for them to play or train, they do it for fun.”
All seven local players involved with the ODP will continue to practice with the program going forward, with another tournament scheduled for next month, which they all hope to be invited to.
Like the boys, the girls too have worked hard to get their opportunity, something Killfoil says she has seen first-hand from the Eureka juniors.
“I’ve known these girls since we were fifth or fourth graders, and we have a really great connection with each other,” the Fortuna midfielder said. “They’re all super hard working, and we don’t bring each other down. We’re just trying to support each other.”
Carroll echoed the sentiment.
“We all have great chemistry because we have played together for so long,” she said.