The entrance of two players at about the 15-minute mark changed the complexion – and eventually the result – of Clover’s second-round boys’ soccer state playoff match against Dutch Fork last week.
Seniors Rex Epps and Rett Stevens were in large part responsible for helping Todd Woodward’s Dutch Fork team settle down during the May 7 match. Both have signed to play with Div. I colleges (Epps with Army; Stevens with Marshall), and both have played soccer with a development academy the last two years. Epps is blessed with sprinter’s speed and is a competent finisher in front of goal; Stevens’ precocious left foot continually stressed the Blue Eagles’ defense with laser precision free kicks into the box.
Both players scored in the 5-0 rout that ended the Blue Eagles’ season. But that’s not what peeved Clover coach Graham Stafford after the match. It was that Epps and Stevens, who didn’t play with the Silver Foxes during the regular season, were in the match at all.
“The precedent has been set with the two academy boys being able to play, who haven’t played all season,” Stafford said after the game. “If we’re gonna go down that road I think it’s a rocky road. It’s just not in the spirit of high school sports, for me. I’d rather lose tonight with my integrity intact and knowing that we did it the right way, than winning at all costs.”
Dutch Fork went 13-8-1 in the regular season, finishing second in Region 4-4A. The Silver Foxes had a good team but the addition of Epps and Stevens, who has a 3.44 grade point average, took Dutch Fork to another level. That belief was further proven when they pushed third-ranked J.L. Mann to overtime in the third round before falling 3-2, despite two goals from Epps.
Epps and Stevens played games on May 2 and 3 with SC United of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Both started the May 3 game, in which Epps scored his team-leading 14th goal of the season. Two days later the duo made their high school season debut in the first round playoff game against Hillcrest. It’s not clear why they left their SC United team, though it appears that the team’s season was finished.
Stafford received advance notice that Epps and Stevens would be playing their second high school game of the season against Clover and wanted to see if it was within the rules. He sent a lengthy email to the South Carolina High School League expressing his concern. The league’s Skip Lax replied: “Coach, Understand concerns but this would be a school issue whether they allow those players to compete.”
Lax went into more detail on Thursday with The Herald.
“There certainly was no violation. That’s really what we call a local issue,” said Lax, who oversees boys’ soccer for the high school league. “That school’s coach, that school’s A.D. (athletics director) or principal or superintendent has the ability to determine whether that should or should not be allowed.”
Dutch Fork didn’t break any rules. There is no roster cut-off point in South Carolina high school soccer; players can be added at any time, all the way up to a state championship game, as long as they pass the league’s eligibility requirements.
There is no high school league rule requiring players to participate in a minimum number of games to be eligible for the playoffs. Lax said that only swimming and track and field had minimum participation requirements.
The high school league also has no regulations against dual participation for its high school athletes, except for football. Lax cited basketball as an example, saying a high school player could also suit up for his church or AAU team during the season. “As long as the school is okay with that,” he added.
Woodward said in an email that Epps and Stevens reached out to him about joining the Dutch Fork team. The school checked with the league to make sure no rules would be broken and then proceeded.
“The Dutch Fork varsity boys soccer team held a private ballot vote, and the response from the team was unanimously in favor of wanting Rex and Rett to join the team,” Woodward wrote in the email. “Therefore, since the team voted unanimously for Rex and Rett to join the team, we moved forward to allow Rex and Rett to play with the team for the remainder of the season.
Several coaches contacted by The Herald said they would have had no concerns had the academy players joined Dutch Fork’s team before the season.
Academy players return to high school soccer all the time. Northwestern senior Caleb Moore rejoined the Trojans’ program this season after playing two years with SC United, alongside Epps and Stevens. He’d already clinched a college scholarship with Appalachian State and wanted to play one last year with his schoolmates and friends.
Northwestern boys’ soccer coach Dom Wren is also an assistant coach with Charlotte Soccer Academy, and straddles the line of high school and academy soccer. He told Moore when the player left for academy soccer that the return door to high school soccer would always be open, but that he would have to go through a full preseason and do everything the rest of the team did to get ready for the season.
“If you’re thinking about playing academy you have to commit to one or the other, and I think that’s a key word here ... commitment,” said Wren. “The squad that I roll with at the start of the season is gonna be the squad I roll with at the end of the season.”
Former Nation Ford boys’ soccer coach Elton Ramey dealt with the loss of players to academy soccer on numerous occasions during his tenure with the Falcons. Once the players decided to go the academy route, “I would never recruit them to come back,” said Ramey.
He cited Nation Ford senior Geoff Liskoff as an example. Liskoff signed a soccer scholarship with Virginia Tech in February after playing for Charlotte Soccer Academy this past season. When Liskoff consulted Ramey about playing academy soccer several seasons back, the coach told the player that he supported him playing at that level because he definitely was good enough and needed the challenge to continue improving. But if he missed practices with the high school team he would have to deal with the consequences.
“He understood it,” said Ramey. “Him and his parents were cool with it. But I supported him 100 percent. He has a scholarship to Virginia Tech now because he played academy ball.”
To be clear, most soccer coaches and officials believe there is nothing wrong with academy soccer; it will take the game forward in the United States and should one day unlock the soccer potential this country possesses in abundance. It’s also led to pro deals or college soccer scholarships for the vast majority of its participants.
But for some, the concern arises when academy players, who have the ability to impact the outcomes of games, can come and go in high school soccer as they please. It raises questions about whether it is right to bring two players into the fold late in the year who haven’t played the entire season.
Or whether it is fair to an opponent to spring two college-quality players on them that had not previously been on the roster.
Or, what kind of message it sends in general to youth athletes who are supposed to be learning life lessons through sports? Multiple coaches interviewed for this story said they disapproved of Dutch Fork’s decision, believing it sent a win-at-all costs message to impressionable teenage males.
“From my point of view the integrity of your program and the sportsmanship of the game is paramount,” said Wren. “That’s not Dutch Fork-bashing; they’ve obviously had their reasons for doing it and it’s not against the rules.”
Why aren’t there rules? For starters, Lax said this instance was the first he’d heard of the issue, though he was sure academy players had played with South Carolina public high schools before.
Second, league administrators don’t create regulations without the league’s members suggesting them. Lax recommended the South Carolina High School Soccer Coaches Association debate the issue now that it’s bubbled to the surface.
“As an association they have the opportunity to bring forth proposals by the membership,” said Lax. “A lot of times they will get the backing of school principals, and the school principal will say, ‘I think the membership needs to take a hard look at this issue.’”
Kevin Heise, Brookland-Cayce’s boys’ soccer coach the last 25 years and the associate state chairman of the South Carolina High School Soccer Coaches Association, said there isn’t a unified front among the state’s coaches about the issue, but that the majority of them “are against development academy players coming back basically as mercenaries.”
The coaches’ association has a summer clinic July 27 in Greenville. Expect the issue to come up.
“When D.A. (development academy) came out and said they would be restricted to a 10-month season and there will be no participation in high school soccer, then basically US Soccer took a stance against high school soccer,” said Heise, who had a meeting with the state high school league Friday morning partly devoted to the issue. “They drew a line and forced kids to choose.”
One thing that is not up for debate is whether Epps and Stevens impacted last week’s rout of Clover.
Knowing they were going to play no doubt effected Clover ahead of the game; teenagers definitely aren’t immune to intimidation by reputation. But Epps and Stevens’ influence wasn’t limited to psychological warfare.
After another slow start to the second half, Woodward inserted Epps and Stevens into the game about five minutes in and the impact was immediate. Clover only trailed the Silver Foxes 1-nil, but when Stevens intercepted a loose defensive pass and scored 10 minutes into the second half, the Blue Eagles' comeback trail steepened. By the time Epps buried a late fourth, the game was done and dusted.
With a few minutes remaining in the match, Stafford called Woodward over to midfield and quietly told him what he thought about Epps and Stevens’ participation.
“Their coach seems like a nice guy. We had a chat about it. I just don’t think it’s the right way to play high school ball,” said Stafford.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T
What is academy soccer?
The U.S. Soccer Development Academy was created in 2007 to help push the game forward in the United States. It closely mirrors the long-established system used in other parts of the world, especially Europe and South America. The focus is on more training and less games; when games are played they should be highly competitive.
Academy soccer, which plays in a nationwide league in front of numerous college and pro scouts, moved to a 10-month season two years ago and requires most of its players to sign exclusivity agreements barring them from playing for other clubs, leagues, or in high school soccer. Academy players continue to attend their normal high school or private school, they just don’t play soccer there.