Senior soccer players gather for one last game

HUBBARD – When Niles’ Paige Freel entered high school more than four years ago, the senior goalkeeper was a member of a competitive dance team and hadn’t played one minute of soccer.

Before Freel’s freshman year, however, her friend, Casey Sudzina, talked Freel into trying out for the Niles’ girls soccer team, and it didn’t take long for Freel to enjoy the beautiful game and eventually make it her primary extracurricular activity.

“I ended up just loving the sport,” Freel said. “My sophomore year, it was getting to be too much between this and dancing. Even with one year playing this (sport), I fell in love with the game.”

After only four years of playing, Freel went from novice to all-star, as the 5-foot-6, 135-pound goalkeeper was one of 84 girls and boys who participated in Sunday’s Youngstown District Scholastic Soccer Coaches Association’s 26th annual Senior All-Star games at Hubbard Memorial Field. The 84 players (42 boys and 42 girls) were split across four matches (two boys and two girls).

For Freel, it wasn’t something she could have imagined four years ago when she made the decision to pick up soccer.

“I didn’t have the confidence,” Freel said. “I didn’t think I would end up being good or I didn’t think I’d end up amounting to something where I’d even want to pursue in college, but the hard work and the help from my coaches and teammates, that’s what’s made this possible.”

YDSSCA President and Hubbard girls soccer coach Scott MacMillan said the point of having these matches are to celebrate their seniors and to try and give college coaches a chance to scout area talent. MacMillan said while the association invites 40 colleges, 20 to 25 collegiate coaches come to the event each year on average.

Still, not every player will pursue soccer at the next level. Thus, the all-star matches are some players’ last hurrah as competitive soccer players.

“It’s bittersweet,” MacMillan said. “You showcase them because they’re seniors and hopefully, they get to play on, but if they don’t, this is their goodbye to their careers. So, we try to salute them that way.”

The matches also gave the players an opportunity to play with those from other teams, especially those they don’t see often. Players represented around 30 schools, with the distance from the northern-most school (Grand Valley) and the southern-most school (Beaver Local) stretching 76.7 miles.

Howland midfielder Kyle Watson said he enjoyed playing alongside guys from schools such as Lordstown, Poland and John F. Kennedy, amongst others.

“Throughout the year, you get to know them all and build rivalries and friendships,” Watson said. “Just to come together as a team and play together is just fun.”

Once the matches ended, so did the players’ high school careers. Like many others walking off the field on Sunday, Freel said that fact hadn’t sunk in yet.

“Playing here (Sunday), I felt like this was a Saturday morning, waking up and playing a season game,” Freel said. “It will be a couple of weeks and then it will hit me that I’m not going to get back out there with my team.”