She gets her kicks from soccer Joppatowne senior would gladly give up track, despite medals, titles


Thori Staples would give up track tomorrow if she could.

Even though she won three gold medals at the Class 1A/2A state championships last year. Even though she set a county record in the 100-meter hurdles this spring. Even though she won a junior national title in the heptathlon last summer. And even though her talent has been favorably compared to that of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the 1988 Olympic heptathlon champion.

The Joppatowne senior would trade it all -- for soccer.

"If I were to choose, I would choose soccer over track," said Staples, an All-Metro striker, who could pick up three or four more gold medals at Saturday's state track and field championships.

"I like to make my own choices, but that's not always -- quote-unquote -- the best choice, so I don't always get to make my choices."

Her parents, Thurston and Sonda Staples, decided that Thori should stick with track -- sometimes at the expense of soccer. So she runs with the Joppatowne team in the spring and with the Ed Waters Track Club in the summer.

"We did pull rank on her," said Sonda Staples. "As parents, we chose to take a stand. Track and field, as it currently is, would take her further. It was something she could fall back on as a career. Soccer wouldn't give her financial stability."

One place where the Staples did not pull rank on the youngest of their four children was over her choice of college.

"Yeah, the one time I want them to help, and they wouldn't," said Thori, with a laugh. Her parents let her pick a school with soccer in mind.

Because of her exceptional athletic ability, Thori was heavily recruited for both soccer and track. Her 3.6 grade-point average made her even more attractive to college coaches. The Staples' home was flooded with mail urging her to consider schools all over the country.

Thori wanted to stay in the Atlantic Coast Conference and finally narrowed the field to three schools -- North Carolina, North Carolina State and Virginia. She quickly ruled out perennial national champ North Carolina, because in all sports, even practices were run like competitions. Thori said she didn't want that much pressure every single day.

She finally chose N.C. State because she liked the soccer program, No. 6 in the country last year, and the coach, Larry Gross, a Towson State graduate.

"Thori is, by far, the best athlete we have coming in," said Gross, who had an excellent recruiting year. Another incoming player is international transfer Catherine Zaborowski, who played on Norway's World Cup team.

Gross said he was most impressed with Thori's speed and athleticism as well as her strength. Although Thori has been the top scorer in Harford County since 1989, Gross plans to move her to defense.

"I think she'll be drawn upon to mark some of the best strikers in the country," said Gross. "We lose a lot of experience on defense, but we're going to gain athleticism and speed.

"I figure Thori will make a lot of mistakes at first as freshman do when they're just learning at this level. But she will be able to make up for them with her speed."

During her first year at State, Thori also plans to run track, a condition of her scholarship. That's fine with Gross.

"I encourage her only because I played three sports [at Towson State]. I'm familiar with the hazards and the benefits of multiple sports. I think, athletically, she's gifted enough to handle it," said Gross.

Thori started running at about 9 years old. She started playing soccer at 12.

On the fields of Riverside Elementary, located next to her house, Thori was running faster than the boys. At 10, she won a fourth-place medal in the 800 meters in her first national race at the U.S. Youth Games in New York.

Last summer, she won the Amateur Athletic Union heptathlon for girls 17-18 in Tallahassee, Fla. She scored 4,503 points, a personal best. Included in the seven events were personal best results in the shot put, 34 feet 10 inches, and the javelin, 92 feet.

The victory earned her a week last August at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She turned down an invitation to try out for the junior national track team.

In soccer, Thori plays for an outstanding club team, the Columbia Crusaders. Two years ago, she was chosen to try out for the regional Olympic Development team, but couldn't make the trip because of a track conflict.

That was the beginning of her declining interest in track.

"I think it's a little bit of burnout," said Sonda Staples. "She doesn't like the stress, and in track it's all on the individual. She doesn't really have the confidence in track that she has in soccer."

Thori will play a lot of soccer this summer, but will also head to Minnesota in late July to defend her AAU heptathlon title.

Her parents said they won't interfere if Thori decides to drop track after her freshman year. But they still have hope. Joyner-Kersee went to college on a basketball scholarship.

Still, Thori probably has her eye on the national soccer team.

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