John Bates

Kalama coach John Bates appreciates the youth programs and their development of good players, but admits there's still no stacking up to the elite academy teams in Vancouver and Portland. 

Bill Wagner, The Daily News

Clark County prep girls’ soccer programs are better than those in Cowlitz County, history show. But it doesn’t come down to effort or athletes, it’s resources that’s making the difference, coaches say.

It’s a gap that continues to shrink as Longview and Kalama youth soccer programs continue to grow, and it was seen in Kalama, R.A. Long and Kelso High School’s playoff runs last season.

So how much has the margin decreased heading into the 2017 season?

“They’re getting close. It’s a lot closer than it was just a few years ago,” fifth-year Kelso coach Kemal Vejo said. “There’s still a gap, but it’s not as big as it was.”

Closing the deficit, though, might be tough. Bigger cities have resources that dwarf those of the Longview area, and as a result, the area’s most talented players tend to flee to soccer academies in the Portland area.

“We do the best for what we have,” third-year R.A. Long coach Teresa Aloe said, “but I don’t know if we’ll ever be the best because we just can’t compete (with the resources in Vancouver and Portland).”

From the youth up

High school soccer in Southwest Washington is still benefiting from rising youth teams, though, and coaches notice.

“Oh, yeah,” Vejo said. “The kids coming up now are a lot better, they can move the ball better, and the ball control has been a huge improvement.”

Aloe has seen an improvement in her players since helping kickstart youth soccer in the Cowlitz area more than 10 years ago, and that has extended south to Kalama, where the Chinooks ran to a 2B runner-up finish last season.

“Definitely, we have some good coaches in Kalama that have been feeding them to high school,” Bates said. “It’s ball control and not being nervous when they receive the ball and playing well under pressure. That’s the big thing that I’ve seen — receiving the ball and not going to pieces.”

Bates wasn’t alone in his appreciation for local coaches.

“We have some really great coaches here that do a really good job,” Aloe said. “Most people don’t realize how much time these coaches put in.”

Even Clark County coaches have taken notice.

“I think the teams from the north are getting better,” Hockinson coach Joe Chicks said. “I think their technical skills are getting better. Kids are getting more avenues at getting better; they’re already more experienced.”

The coaches’ licensing process has also helped, many agree, with one language being taught to all coaches that go through the United State Soccer Federation program. Now, players don’t have to face massive changes from one level to the next.

“What we’re seeing now is younger players are being taught more complex ideas and what I am seeing now is so much more than when I started eight years ago at Ridgefield,” Spudders coach Robbie Trimbo said. “It’s not whether you have athletes now, it’s whether you have soccer players.”

Migrating south

Premier level teams are commonplace in Clark County. There’s several options to choose from, including the Portland Thorns Academy team.

For talented kids looking to play against similar competition, they have to head south to find it.

“All the kids who are good are heading to Vancouver because this area can’t offer what that area can,” Aloe said. “The top level coaches here have regular day jobs.”

Often those programs practice or play several days a week and high school participation is near impossible.

“I just think it’s a mess,” Chicks said. “They’re trying to find a way to make soccer less expensive and 90 percent of it, I think they got right. But keeping the kids out of high school, that’s just not right.”

Making a choice

For those looking to play at the next level, they know it’s not the varsity squad where the college coaches are recruiting.

Aloe remembers a time when college recruiters were contacting her about players she coached in high school. That’s not the case anymore.

“Recruiting from NCAA level is coming from select teams now, not high school,” she said.

While local programs are continuing to produce better players, the Longview-based teams see more kids out to have fun and grow as players rather than eyeing college looks every weekend. The Timber Barons play year-round but don’t forbid athletes from joining their high school teams.

“Around here, we have kids who are looking to improve, and many of them do,” 13u Timber Barons coach David Pittsley said.

But for those who are extremely talented and aiming to play at the next level, it makes sense to head south and play for an academy or premier travel team.

“If they’re one of the ones who are good enough to play at the next level,” Bates said, “well then it makes sense to go and do that.”

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Jason is a journeyman sports reporter who has covered the Golden State Warriors, Oakland A's, along with a heavy emphasis on the Oakland Raiders. He comes to Cowlitz County from Oakland, Calif. and is a loving father.

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