CLEARWATER —Tuesday, they competed against each other on the soccer field, Leah Fisher, the lightning-quick forward from East Lake, trying to score; Palm Harbor University's Ellycia Colon, arguably the county's top defender, shadowing her every move.
Wednesday, they sat an arm's length apart as teammates of the Clearwater Lightning Under-18 club team, signing letters of intent to play college soccer in the Big East Conference — Fisher with Notre Dame, Colon with USF — where it's possible they could again find themselves on opposing teams.
Fisher vs. Colon 2.0, perhaps?
"Maybe I'll get lucky and she won't be marking me like in high school," Fisher said, laughing.
Fisher and Colon were two of 10 high school seniors from the Lightning to sign letters of intent at the Countryside Sports Complex on Wednesday. Nine signed with Division I schools. Another player, Florida International-bound Claudia Saucedo, couldn't make the ceremony because she was playing basketball for Pinellas Park. All told, 11 Lightning seniors received scholarships this year.
Three years ago, every one of coach John Planamenta's 16 players went on to compete in college. Planamenta, who played on the organization's first team in 1982 and came back as a coach in 1994, estimates he has sent about 100 players to college.
Planamenta's approach is simple. His players treat their college recruitment like an applicant preparing for a job interview.
Before ever stepping foot on the field, Planamenta has the players put together a list of colleges they're interested in. Then, they write e-mails to those schools.
They also create their own player biographies to give to coaches while introducing themselves at showcase tournaments, where it's not uncommon to have representatives from 50 colleges in attendance.
And just like any good job applicant writes a thank-you note after an interview, the players send follow-up e-mails, thanking the coaches for scouting them.
"Recruiting is marketing," said Planamenta, who also coached his Palm Harbor University High girls team to tonight's Class 5A regional final against Seminole. "It's a process that's very time-consuming. … But, when the first one verbally commits somewhere, everyone's like, 'Hey, it works.' "
Fisher was the first to give an oral pledge to the Fighting Irish as a sophomore. Half of the team had committed by their junior year. Of the three seniors on the team who didn't sign Wednesday, one still has an opportunity to sign, another joined the U.S. Marine Corps and the third could play, but decided to concentrate on academics instead.
"It's an honor to be on a team that everyone tried just as hard to get a scholarship as the person next to them did," Colon said. "We've all known each other for at least five years. To see us grow to this point is unbelievable."
Their high school careers are, for the most part, over. And they have only four months of club soccer left before beginning their collegiate career.
"A couple of years ago they're coming to me and saying, 'Hey, we want to play soccer,' " Planamenta said. "And all of a sudden you see them here in their (college) shirt, signing. It makes it worthwhile, all the hard work you put into it."