This was supposed to be Year 1 of the great demise of boys soccer at the high school level.
In Colorado, and specifically Boulder, the 2012 campaign instead turned into the season where high school soccer struck back.
We wrote last summer about the increasing influence of U.S. Soccer Development Academies on the high school game in the wake of U.S. Soccer's announcement last February that it was moving to a 10-month Academy schedule. That meant those competing for the U16 and U18 squads at the state's three Development Academies -- the Rapids, Real Colorado, and the Colorado Rush -- essentially would be prohibited from participating in high school soccer.
It has become a hot-button issue not only in Colorado, but across the nation. In Boulder, this announcement occurred in the wake of the remarkable prep career put together by 2012 Fairview graduate Shane O'Neill, who continued to star for the Knights' soccer and basketball teams while juggling his time with the Rapids Academy. Playing high school sports didn't seem to throw any road blocks in O'Neill's career path, as he signed with the Rapids early last summer.
Many parents, fans, and coaches feared the loss of such top-end talent was going to spell the beginning of the end of high school soccer. Instead, Boulder and Fairview both showcased exactly all that is good about high school sports in general and high school soccer in particular.
Both schools suffered defections to Development Academies. Yet not only did they enjoy banner seasons-- as Boulder eliminated the Knights in the Class 5A state semifinals before claiming the program's first state crown -- but both schools did so with a spirit of hard work, community, and sacrifice for a common cause that their respective coaches believe provided difficult experiences to duplicate at Development Academies.
"Ultimately, it's about providing for kids a place where they can develop as part of the educational process through competition, to grow not only as soccer players but as young men," said Fairview coach Stan Jozwiak, who just completed his 32nd season with the Knights. "Whatever number of players were lopped off by Development Academies, there was really great competition in the Front Range League this year. The number of students and fans that came down for the semis at Cherokee Trail to watch that game, that was something the Academy guys will never get to be a part of until they're in college or maybe even the pros."
Fairview not only entered the season without the graduated O'Neill, but the Knights also lost several other senior standouts from 2011, as well as Bryan Windsor to the Rapids Academy. Few pegged the Knights as contenders in the FRL. All they did was finish third while knocking off second-place Fossil Ridge during the state tournament.
Fairview received a boost when the family of senior Eric Kronenberg decided to spend the spring semester in Switzerland, the homeland of Kronenberg's father. The move kept Kronenberg out of the loop with his club, the Rapids Academy, and he basically was told he could return to the Rapids after the high school season. Kronenberg shared the team lead in goals with 13 and also recorded a team-best nine assists.
"We were fortunate to have him this year," Jozwiak said. "It was important to him and I know he was having a tough time coming to grips with having to make that kind of decision."
At Boulder, examples abound over how meaningful the 2012 season became. In the days since the Panthers captured their first state title, head coach Hardy Kalisher has been bombarded by one reminder after another about what the Panthers' state title meant to the community.
There have been the multiple well-wishers Kalisher has encountered at the grocery store, complete strangers who had been touched by the Panthers' journey. There was the story Kalisher heard of the local businessman who dropped $150 to change a flight out of Denver after the original state title date was postponed due to snow. Or the Boulder alum who took a bus home from Missouri to witness the title game that didn't happen. And there was the assistant at the office of Kalisher's back doctor, where he had an appointment scheduled the day after the title game, who deadpanned "You're feeling better" after watching Kalisher's celebratory version of "The Worm" on BoCoPreps.com.
These stories already have grown every bit as meaningful to Kalisher and the Panthers as welcoming junior midfielder Javier Castruita into the fold after he had never played high school soccer before, or watching Lake Brant score two goals in quick succession in the second half of the title game after suffering a cut to his lip that later required six stitches.
Two of the biggest arguments on behalf of the Academy experience are the higher level of competition it offers and the exposure those players receive from college recruiters. Well, in the wake of the state tournament, Kalisher has taken several calls from college coaches inquiring about players from both Boulder and Fairview. And he would pit the quality of play the Panthers endured throughout their rugged schedule against anything an Academy club faces.
"Coaches will always find players and players will always rise to the top," said Kalisher, who resigned his position coaching pre-Development Academy age groups with the Rapids about halfway through the high school season. "And these were quality games. I look at the Academy scores and see they jump on a plane to go to Texas to win a game 6-1. Is that a quality game?"
If this was the beginning of the end for high school soccer, we should all be excited to see more of it.
Follow Pat on Twitter: @prooney07