Sports Editor Will Hammock
During another playoff run by Collins Hill's boys soccer team this spring, Amiri Abraham is no longer on the field. The senior is in the stands with friends, or sitting by his father, Gary, the Eagles' PA announcer.
That wasn't the case in previous seasons when Abraham, a dynamic Georgia State signee, was a key player for the Eagles. There are aspects of high school soccer he misses, but months later doesn't fret too much about his decision to give up high school soccer.
A number of Gwinnett's top high school players faced the same predicament as Abraham this year, when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy season went to a year-round schedule (it previously ended in time for the high school season).
"I think it gets you more ready for college," said Abraham, who plays for a Georgia United Academy team. "The style of play is higher, a tougher schedule with tougher teams. I think playing and practicing with better players makes you better."
At every Collins Hill game, Abraham watches one of his former teammates who chose the other option. Eli Carrasco, one of the state's top midfielders, played half of the Academy season on Abraham's team.
But when high school season arrived, Carrasco quit the Georgia United team in favor of Collins Hill.
"I really wanted to play with some of my close friends, that I've grown up playing with," Carrasco said. "I totally respect my Academy coaches for what they've done for me and their support with my decision. ... Sometimes there is more than soccer. There is family, community and friends."
There lies the predicament for Academy players these days.
High school soccer is fun for them, mainly because they get to play in front of cheering friends and classmates. It's a different scenario with Academy games, which are played all over the country and your small rooting section is generally the parents who made the trip.
There's no student section with horns, drums and body paint cheering your every move, the atmosphere that comes with a top high school program like Collins Hill.
"Celebrating, pretty much," Abraham said about what he misses from high school soccer. "I like scoring and my fan base is awesome. I like playing in front of my fans. I like bonding with the boys and with my friends (from school). ... I can see why (some people left Academy for high school soccer). I know Eli for example, Eli said he likes playing in front of his friends. He likes the crowd. He likes to be flashy and everything. You can't really do that in academy."
Brookwood senior Cameron Grassmyer, one of the state's top defenders, followed the same path as Carrasco and played for the Broncos' playoff team this season.
But others didn't. One of the county's top goal-scorers the past two seasons, Georgia Southern signee Jeremy Rector, chose Academy over Peachtree Ridge for his final high school season. A number of underclassmen also chose Academy soccer, standouts like Parkview's Jonathan Jarrett and a handful of players from Collins Hill, a group that includes Edan Mendoza, Zach Jones, Cameron Johnson and Nick Nelson. Khalil Stewart, a senior at Collins Hill, also gave up high school soccer.
Their decision-making process was simple. Academy offers a higher level of play, thanks to a nationwide talent pool, and college coaches swarm their Academy matches. Not that giving up high school soccer was easy, particularly when high school coaches, teammates and friends try to talk them out of Academy.
"For me and most other people the reasons for playing high school over Academy was obvious: better atmosphere, playing in front of your friends and the recognition that comes with that," Rector said. "All of this is great and makes high school soccer as fun as it is, but overall you can tell that there is a certain quality of soccer that is missing from high school. Unlike club soccer where on my team we have players that will drive as long as three hours to practice, high school has a very small area to select players from. This really ensures that academy teams are bringing in the most competitive players in a region."
The underclassmen feel the Academy route is best suited for the development of their games, but the opportunity to perform in front of college coaches and national team scouts is tough to pass up. For upperclassmen like Abraham, Rector and others, who already have college scholarships, the Academy experience is about getting ready for their freshman college seasons this fall.
"My Academy team has great players and a great coach, so I know when I go to practice each day everyone will push each other to get better," Rector said. "Each game we play against the best players from other states, so the speed of play and the technique that is required to play at the Academy level is challenging.
"I have been lucky enough to have been given an opportunity to play soccer at Georgia Southern this fall. With the amount of time and money they have invested in me, I felt that I needed to prepare myself in the best way possible to contribute my freshman season."
While that is a positive, missing out on the high school experience is a drawback. But in the current situation, players can no longer choose both.
It's relegated former high school stars like Abraham to high school spectators.
"I decided right after (the Academy season went to 10 months), I picked Academy and I kind of regretted it at first," Abraham said. "But then I said, 'I'm just going to go with it, get better and work on myself.'"
Will Hammock can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.