Karl Kukec is not only a fine girls soccer coach, he’s pretty good at juggling, too.
More and more these days, the two jobs go hand in hand.
At Mitchell High, Kukec has to wait until fall sports like volleyball and swimming end to field his full team, an overlap that seems to grow and grow each season.
He has to schedule his high school games around three very important club soccer showcase events, not to mention the practices that precede them, in November and December.
By the time Christmas break ends, the high school district playoffs are beginning and he hopes his best players aren’t burning out. …At least the ones who haven’t graduated.
Mitchell is one of a handful of local teams that has lost its best player to some of the nuances of their sport.
Shelby Wright, his center midfielder and top standout, graduated early in December after leading the Mustangs to a 13-1-1 record.
The Mustangs have struggled since, going 4-4-1 and losing the district title to Hudson. Center midfielder is arguably the most important position on the field. Kukec adjusted his lineup and hopes his tinkering gets what may have been his best team through a few rounds of the region playoffs, which start Thursday.
“It is inconvenient for us as coaches,” he said, “but you support it because it’s the right thing for the player.”
Early graduation is nothing new. Pro soccer star Mia Hamm enrolled at North Carolina a semester early in 1989. Football players are doing it more and more, including local standouts like Plant quarterback Aaron Murray.
But for Murray, high school football season was over. For Wright, now at Nova Southeastern, the season was half over, with playoffs looming.
While seen as a great tool for athletes to get a head start on the next chapter of their lives, others argue that the current chapter goes unfinished.
There is no right or wrong argument, though the fact that Florida is one of the few states that play winter soccer can make it more disruptive.
Mitchell is not alone. St. Petersburg lost its best player to early graduation when midfielder Adriana
Rodrigues headed off to Gainesville in January.
She was irreplaceable; the Green Devils were eliminated in the district semifinals.
“I always want what’s best for the player,” said coach Rhegan Hyppio, a former Lakewood star and collegiate standout at Marquette.
“It’s a struggle because I’m a high school soccer coach, but I played Division I soccer. I understand Adriana’s desire to be seen and go play for a good Division I program. But at the same time, she is one of the highest quality players around. We had to adapt hugely.”
The balancing act for both coaches? How to groom a replacement for a player who never leaves the field.
In Hyppio’s case, an injury to another center midfielder allowed her to give Rodrigues’ replacements game action.
“It’s a team sport, so we always try to make sure we have someone there to come in, because there’s always injuries,” Kukec said. “At least we knew this (early graduation) was coming.”
Neither Kukec or Hyppio had coached a player who graduated early before this season, but they can almost certainly expect more in the future.
Like Mitchell, Berkeley Prep will also be without its top player for the postseason, but for a different reason.
Sophomore keeper Bryane Heaberlin leaves today for a U.S. Women’s Under-17 team camp in Sunrise and will be there until Feb. 6. Last year, in a similar situation, she was able to make it back for playoff games.
Leaving at this crucial junction of the high school season “is definitely very hard,” Heaberlin said. But she is hopeful her outstanding opportunity creates one for her backup, Morgan Orobello.
“That makes it a little easier; she is a great backup.”
Coach Ken Roberts said losing one of the best keepers in the country is difficult, but something that wasn’t a total surprise.
“There’s so many variables in soccer you have to be ready (as a coach),” he said.
His team (17-4-2) lost three of four to start the season due to the fall overlap, he has had to stop scheduling winter break tourneys so his players can go to Miami and Orlando for club showcase events, and he has been breaking in a new keeper.
He has no regrets.
“I’m 100 percent behind (Heaberlin’s) commitment,” he said. “Do I wish it was not a conflict? I wish that for her.
“This is a team sport, though. We work as a team, and we have a backup that we have a lot of faith in.”
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org