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Going Their Own Way : Not All Athletes Take Traditional Path From Preps to College

High school: Laguna Hills' Coppolella cites time and money as reasons to quit club soccer.

January 27, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ricky Coppolella is not fooling himself for one minute. He understands that, while he is playing on a very good high school soccer team at Laguna Hills, he is not playing at the highest level of competition--club soccer.

But Coppolella also knows there is more to life than soccer. And had he continued to play soccer in club and high school, soccer would have been his life.

So before he entered Laguna Hills, Coppolella gave up club soccer and the $500 annual fee.

"I was taking honors classes, doing stuff with my church and playing high school soccer," he said. "I didn't have time for club. So I decided to dedicate myself to high school soccer."

Coppolella, now a senior, said a couple factors helped make his decision to leave the Triad soccer club a little easier.

"Our team was basically falling apart and we weren't winning," he said. "A lot of people were quitting. It was pretty expensive too. My brother's at Notre Dame and there's me and my sister to put through college, too."

Back then, Coppolella's parents were paying $500 a year, plus tournament expenses--typical for most clubs at that time--for Ricky to be a member of Triad. Now, club fees are about twice that.

But the cost hasn't dissuaded many of Coppolella's friends from playing club. Nine of Laguna Hills' 11 starters are members of club teams. Coppolella and leading scorer Kevin McConaughy are the only two non-club starters on the Hawks' fourth-ranked team.

Coppolella said those nine players get what they pay for.

"They'll practice about eight to 10 hours a week more than I do," he said. "Those guys have tournaments on the weekend. They'll have high school soccer and club practice on the same night. I don't have to worry about that. I didn't think I could handle that."

Had he continued to play club soccer, Coppolella said there's no way he could have maintained a 3.9 grade-point average and learn three languages--Italian, French and Spanish. He also wouldn't have been able to serve a two year-stint as sports editor of the school newspaper and a year as the paper's editor.

Laguna Hills Coach Scott Johnson said there are certain advantages high school soccer enjoys that club soccer will never be able to duplicate.

"In high school, they get a lot more recognition from their peers," Johnson said. "A club soccer team might win a state title, but not very many people know about it outside of the club community. In high school, their names get in the paper, the little girls go nuts over them and a lot of fans go to their games. The boys have gotten a lot out of this season."

But Coppolella doesn't deny he would have gotten plenty out of a club season too.

"I do miss playing people at a higher level," he said. "There's a lot of guys on high school soccer teams that are out there for reasons other than their skills. A club game would take a lot more out of me."

But Coppolella said his skills have hardly eroded over the last four years.

"I think my level has improved," he said. "When I was playing club, I was playing offense. In high school, I was allowed to explore other positions and I've found that I'm more comfortable playing fullback."

Coppolella is more comfortable than ever this season. He is the Hawks' second-ranked defender--giving up only one goal while marking another player. Coppolella said his breakthrough season would not have occurred unless Johnson ran a year-round soccer program at Laguna Hills.

"I was hurt almost all last season with a stress fracture in my back," Coppolella said. "But I started lifting and training in the spring during our seventh-period class and I got into good shape for the summer. I had a great summer in our summer league and that gave me confidence going into the season."

Johnson treats his soccer players almost as if they were club players. Between summer league, seventh-period weight-lifting in the fall and spring, and then the actual season in the winter, August is the only month Laguna Hills' soccer team has off.

For those who play club and high school, the schedule can get pretty crowded. But Johnson said he tries to accommodate the club player whenever possible.

"I bend over backward to make it work with the club teams," he said. "We've benefited so much from the club players we have. They work harder than the average player on our team. We're lucky to have them."

Coppolella said he's lucky to be playing against them in practice every day, but he'd rather not join them again for club practice a few hours later.

"I love playing soccer," he said. "But I don't love it that much."

Coppolella loves it enough that he is thinking about playing in college, probably as a walk-on. He plans to attend either UC San Diego, Loyola Marymount or UCLA and is interested in becoming an international journalist.

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