It's showtime for scholarship-aspiring, 16- and 17-year-old soccer players in town for the 26th Columbia Invitational Tournament, which concludes at Fort Meade tomorrow.
For this is the weekend regionally that college coaches and recruiters start seeking players for fall 2002; with few exceptions, recruits for this fall have committed to schools.
Thus, the Columbia tournament and two larger tournaments within a 90-minute drive have attracted more than 300 such recruiters from across America in the past several years.
The three tournaments have 1,285 teams scheduled (270 in Columbia, 295 in the Potomac Soccer Association's event, and 720 in The Virginian, centered in Springfield, Va.) for players between 9 and 19. Teams are guaranteed three games.
"The under-17s are the showcase group," said Karen Nickles, a former Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County player, current youth coach and the volunteer who oversees compilation of a "player profile book" that college coaches attending the Columbia event covet as a recruiting aid.
Columbia's tournament has 48 under-17 teams (24 boys and 24 girls) from 16 states and one Canadian province competing. In the under-16 bracket, which recruiters track secondarily, another 40 teams (16 boys, 24 girls) were scheduled.
All games by the "U-17s," to use soccer shorthand, are being played, heavy rain or overly sodden turf permitting, this weekend on eight fields at Fort Meade's Parade Grounds - a deliberate convenience for recruiters, Nickles said. A few coaches helped SAC/HC conduct its now annual college night on Friday - to discuss NCAA recruiting rules and related matters for parents and players.
"They usually know who they're looking for," Nickles said of the recruiters, "but it's not uncommon for them to see and begin following another player or two, as well."
Nickles' book helps recruiters by providing biographical data on high school juniors, their grade-point averages, SAT and PSAT scores and soccer experience - assuming their teams' managers or coaches answered SAC/HC's request for information. Most did. Such books have become standard fare at all three regional tournaments.
By midweek, Nickles said, she had heard from about 250 recruiters; over 50 more were expected to just show up - and ask for a book. Recruiters of female players constituted the midweek majority, she said. But overall, recruiters from as far away as California (UCLA and Southern Cal), Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida had signed up online for books.
Numbers are impossible to find, but recruiters and local coaches say that of the 750-plus U-17s competing locally this weekend, very few will get full scholarships. More will get partial aid. But the majority will get no assistance, even if they choose to try out for college teams.
The Columbia Invitational's championship soccer games in age groups from under-10 through under-19 are scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow and end with the under-19 boys game at 2:30 p.m. All games will be played at Fort Meade's Parade Grounds. Take Route 175 to the Army base's main entrance, and follow to the fields. Free parking, admission. Food available.