They didn’t want to leave.
And why would they? The Lambert girls soccer team’s historically dominant 2017 season ended in a Class 7A state championship, and Madison Haugen, Sydney Hennessey, Ellie Christensen, Ellie Prybylski and Brooke Schuyler – the last two as sophomores and the first three as freshmen – all played crucial roles in the title run. It was one of the best experiences of their soccer careers, and of their lives in general. And for the next year, their chance to do it again would be put on hold.
Soccer is one of the amateur sports where a player’s loyalty to their club is usually equal or greater than that to their school. And those five players’ club teams were undergoing a big change, joining U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy program, a new level of club play that prohibited participants from also playing high school soccer. If a player wanted to play high school, it would mean finding a new club team, and at the time, none of the five wanted to do that.
“We didn’t really have a choice,” Haugen said.
But a year later, they’re all back with Lambert, and this year’s team could be as good as the Longhorns squad that won the trophy in 2017. It might be even better.
“I think we’re just really enjoying the ride we’re on,” Lambert head coach Scott Luthart said. “And who wouldn’t, sitting where we’re sitting right now?”
The implementation of the Development Academy affected more county schools than just Lambert. The Longhorns lost six players to the new level – plus M.E. Craven, who tore her ACL but would have played DA had she been healthy – but South Forsyth lost six as well, West Forsyth lost three, and Pinecrest Academy lost one. The new level, in which players train and play more than they do in ECNL, the previous top rank of girls club soccer in the country, is meant to create a more rigorous developmental environment and streamline the identification process for the U.S. National Team.
And for that reason, the Lambert players said their year of DA was valuable and helpful. It was the best preparation they could get for college – all five are committed or signed to play at Division I schools – and the sheer quantity of soccer helped them improve physically and mentally.
“It definitely put in your mind, if you’re going to play in college, what it’s going to look like in the future,” Hennessey said.
Hennessey, Haugen and Christensen weren’t so burnt out that they would have considered switching teams to get away from DA. That was not the case with Schuyler, who played at United Futbol Academy, the massive in-county program. Soccer started to feel like a full-time job for her – the hours one devotes to DA would probably qualify it as one – and the disillusionment she felt with that turned her off from the prospect of playing soccer in college. She turned away from the recruiting process and applied to multiple schools with the goal of just being a student.
“I was just like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this,’” Schuyler said.
By the following summer, though, all five players were back with the Longhorns. On May 18, Concorde Fire, the program Haugen, Hennessey, Prybylski and Christensen played for, announced that it was dropping its DA team and focusing on ECNL. There was no disappointment for the Lambert players affected: They had already committed to college, would stay with their club teams, and could now go back to high school. They excitedly informed Luthart soon after they heard the news.
“It was a win-win,” Christensen said. “Like you’re staying with your best friends, your family, and you’re getting to come back to your state championship team and try to get another.”
Schuyler had to make a choice to consciously leave, though. She had played in UFA since the club was founded when she was in elementary school – “That was my life,” she said – but knew that she had to do something else. She wound up leaving that program and joining the ECNL team at Atlanta Fire United, with the intent of getting back to playing high school soccer.
“It was just my gut feeling,” Schuyler said. “’This is what I want to do. This is what will make me happy.’”
It did that, so much so that it potentially changed her life path. She got back to the rhythm of high school practices and got reunited with old teammates and coaches, rediscovering a “family atmosphere” that she had missed badly. She would go through possession drills – her niche as a midfielder – and feel the euphoria that soccer would bring her.
The realization hit Schuyler at once. She remembers sitting up in her bed at 3 a.m. and suddenly deciding that she wouldn’t be done with soccer after high school.
Unfortunately, Schuyler’s playing career at Lambert is over, as she tore her ACL during the Longhorns’ game against South Forsyth on March 22. But Lambert’s coaches had helped her restart her recruitment process, and later that month, Schuyler committed to play at Georgia Southern.
Lambert certainly feels her absence in the midfield, but the Longhorns are still a juggernaut. Hennessey and Prybylski were good enough to play on a state championship team as underclassmen in 2017, and unsurprisingly, a year of more intense training has made them even better, capable of owning whichever flank they’re playing on, on defense and offense. Haugen’s pace, creativity and deft touches have helped her already set the school’s single-season scoring record with 21 goals. Christensen and Schuyler have helped run a midfield unit that possesses the ball so well as to make getting it out of their own half seem like a victory for some opponents.
“There’s no doubt that DA has developed them and kind of expedited their growth as players,” Luthart said. “They’re fantastic players to begin with, but you could tell right away that they’re just seeing things at a different level.”
The fact that they’re doing so has indirectly boosted the rest of the Longhorns’ players as well. Teams keying heavily on Haugen opens up spaces for players like Taylor Clark and Katelyn Castelli, the latter of which tried DA during the fall of 2018 but left in time for the high school season. And Lambert picked up two more talented former DA players in sophomores Faith Ferrer and Kendall Page, who left the teams at UFA and TopHat.
And on defense, Lambert has two lock-down fullbacks in Hennessey and Prybylski but also center backs Melina West and Emma Baumbick who played the vast majority of minutes in 2018. That team struggled enough to miss the state playoffs, but it also allowed just 20 goals in the 18 games it played.
Statistically, this team is better than 2017’s. Those Longhorns had allowed seven goals before spring break, while this team has allowed just three. That team scored more than three-and-a-half goals per game, but this year, the Longhorns are averaging more than five. Heading into the final stretch of regular season play, their record is 13-0.
“Our last team, I think, was one of the best defensive teams we’ve ever had – we locked down everything so well,” Hennessey said. “This year, we’re doing the same thing, but we’re getting a lot more scoring opportunities. We have a lot more people on this team who are scoring multiple goals.”
That means the Longhorns are explicit in their goal for this season: another state title. Luthart saw the team achieve that status as soon as its roster took shape, before they’d even run a drill together, and it’s been the biggest motivator for the players.
They also can agree on this: There’s something particularly special about playing high school sports and representing your school. It’s a way to make friends, to play in front of classmates and family, to win for something bigger than yourself.
It’s also nice to once again play on what could be one of the best teams, in any sport, that the county has ever seen.
“Every time I play, I think back to our 2017 year,” Hennessey said. “…Every game we play now is going to lead up to what we accomplished in 2017.”