Columbia County native Cara Smith and her longtime friend and teammate Annie Speese traveled to Florida this weekend to participate in a major soccer event. The two were chosen to represent the entire Southeast in the 2008 U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Thanksgiving Program.
This is an invitation-only event. For most players, it is the toughest ticket to get.
As a matter of fact, Smith is one of only two players from the state of Georgia who will play for the 93 Team (under 16 years old, born in 1993), while Speese is the only Georgian who will suit up for the 92 Team (under 17, born in 1992).
To call this a great opportunity would be a major understatement. Smith sees it not only as a chance to play in front of every major college program, but also as a chance to test her ability.
"I want to challenge myself against the best players, and prove that I am one of the best. My goal is to one day make the U.S. National Team," the talented 15-year-old said.
The event started Saturday in Coral Springs, Fla., with the invitees having two days to practice before the competition begins Monday and runs through Friday.
U.S. Youth Soccer is split into four regions, including the Southeast, which is comprised of players from 12 states as far west as Texas. They will get a chance to play against the best in the country, as the U.S. National Team also will be competing in the event.
For Smith and Speese, it is only fitting that they are traveling to Florida together. The two have been inseparable since they met nearly 10 years ago. Speese was a 6-year-old then, playing soccer for the first time. Her coach was Ed Smith, and he had a 5-year-old daughter named Cara who would tag along to practices.
A friendship and a dynamic soccer duo was born. Both play high school soccer at Westminster and play for The Phoenix Red, a club team in talent-laden Gwinnett County.
Despite their young ages (Speese is a sophomore, Smith just a freshman), they already have achieved plenty in the game they love.
Speese has been a starter for Westminster's varsity team since she was an eighth-grader. Last season, as a freshman, she set the school's single-season scoring record. Smith was the leading scorer in the entire Southeast Region while playing for their club team.
Speese started to really dream of playing major college soccer when she was 8 years old and playing for the Augusta Arsenal Gunners. It appears those dreams likely will be achieved. The speedy mid-center already has made unofficial visits to the University of Georgia, Florida State and North Carolina, and each has shown great interest in signing her in two years.
She sees this as another chance to impress the scouts.
"This is a great opportunity to play in front of so many college coaches, and it feels good that all the hard work is paying off," Speese said.
The hard work includes traveling once a week to Atlanta for practice with her club team.
Smith, despite being a freshman, also has college on her mind.
"Annie and I have always said we'd like to play together in college. I went to Georgia and (Florida State) with her for visits," Smith said.
Like Speese, college offers should be no problem for Smith. In women's soccer, North Carolina is the king of the hill, and Smith was named the MVP of the Tar Heels Summer Camp. That is not MVP for her age group -- that is MVP of the entire camp , which featured some of the premier players in the country.
One of the players Smith looks up to is former Tar Heels standout Mia Hamm, who is arguably the top female U.S. soccer player of all time.
She also looks up to her sister, Caitlin, who is a freshman on the soccer team at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.
One day, she would like to have a chance to play soccer beyond college.
"It would be great to see soccer grow even bigger. To get to play professionally would be really cool," Smith said.
Smith's father is an avid soccer supporter in the area, and he has spent countless hours coaching various teams.
Good luck to the talented duo this week. We will be sure to give you an update of their performance as soon as they return.
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