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Age is just a state of mind for freshmen soccer players

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Having played soccer since age 3, Pickerington High School Central's Jaelyn Cunningham didn't balk at starting in goal for the Tigers' girls team this fall.

Playing for youth and club teams for 11 years has made her an unflappable freshman.

"I'm playing with seniors and against seniors," Cunningham said. "I was a little nervous at first and didn't want to make that one big mistake. But that's going to happen, and if I make a mistake my teammates are right there to pick me up and help me out."

She made 10 saves in her debut, a 2-1 loss to Olentangy Liberty on Aug. 21, and has followed that by helping the Tigers to seven wins in the first 10 games she defended the net. Splitting time with junior Lisa Slattery, Cunningham also had scored four goals entering the week while sharing time with another impressive Tigers freshman, forward Aisha Suhaiba.

They're far from the only players balancing varsity soccer with learning the layout of their high school. With the proliferation of offseason leagues in almost every sport, suddenly age doesn't mean as much as it used to.

"It seems like I see three, four and five freshmen on varsity rosters almost every year," said Grove City girls coach Josh Keller, who has five freshmen on his team after 10 players from the 2011 Greyhounds graduated or otherwise left the school or program. "A lot of it is timing, when you enter a program and what's in front of you. I take the best six girls at their position. If there's a girl in front of (a freshman), I leave her at junior varsity and tell her to prove me wrong, that she deserves a varsity spot."

One Grove City freshman, Riley Bowyer, entered this week with five goals and three assists in 12 games. Two classmates, Lindsay Jones and Andrea Luchini, are starting defenders.

Pickerington Central seniors Nate Buccilla and Dillon Ricketts -- the latter an Ohio State recruit -- are four-year letterwinners. This year, freshman midfielder Steven Bauers is trying to follow the same path. The arguable highlight of his season is having scored the tying goal against Pickerington North on Sept. 11, minutes before Ricketts' penalty-kick goal sent the Tigers to their first win over the Panthers since the school district split in 2003.

"It all depends on the school and the philosophy of the coach, but my attitude has always been age doesn't matter," Central coach Brad Monhollen said. "My job is to put the best team on the field and win as many games and championships as possible. If you're a freshman and you're as good as a senior, you're going to get time. But really, you have to be a great athlete to keep up with the speed at this level."

Several coaches agreed speed and strength are the biggest adjustments and impediments for freshmen. But as is the case with so much else in high school, the social aspect isn't far behind.

"When you've got other girls who are seniors, juniors and sophomores who maybe didn't make varsity looking up to you, that's a pretty good position," Central girls coach Jillian Walters said. "Attitude has a lot to do with it. Jaelyn could be cocky because of her talent, but she never rubs her talent or place on the team in anyone's face. She stays humble."

Worthington Christian freshman forward Joe Long has started about half his team's games and entered the week having scored three goals for the Warriors, who were ranked third in Division III in last week's state poll. While one might think doing that as a freshman is gravy on top of making the team, Worthington Christian coach Dan Roads thinks a bit differently.

"The varsity level comes with a lot of burdens and expectations. It's not a privilege. It's something they've earned," he said. "We expect freshmen on varsity to be better than everyone else because they have so much room to grow. ... The biggest thing they need is a soccer mind. Club (experience) is a contributing factor, but the key factor is an ability to stay calm. And they have to be a sponge. There's so much to learn."

Just ask them in three years.

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