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East Lake soccer star among the best

Libby Gianeskis beats out hundreds of girls to make the Olympic Development Program team for the Southeast region.

Libby Gianeskis' soccer career didn't get off to an impressive start.

Like many other players on the team, the 4-year-old wasn't interested in passing, scoring or even getting near the ball. She clung to her dad's leg as he coached the team. The next season, she turned her attention to picking flowers.

"I thought, "This isn't for Lib,' " Mark Gianeskis said.

But along the way, something clicked with Libby, now 14. Earlier this summer, the East Lake teen made the Olympic Development Program soccer team for the Southeast region of the country. The squad consists of rising stars who might one day make the national women's soccer team.

Libby seems almost unaware of how impressive her feat was, but others are happy to boast on her behalf. First, her dad points out, she had to be chosen to represent Tampa Bay at the state level. Then she competed against the best girls in the state to make the Florida Olympic Development squad. Those athletes were divided into two teams, the A and B teams. Libby made the A team.

From there, she went to a trial in Alabama where she played in front of trainers from national soccer teams. She was one of 300 girls competing to make the team in the 12-state Southeast region.

When she first went to the regional camp, she thought she had no chance of making the final cut. A mild-mannered and unassuming teenager, Libby thought she paled in comparison with the other players.

"I saw the level of play, and I didn't think I belonged there," she said.

The coaches and trainers thought otherwise. They had to choose the 40 best girls from that group, and the other 85 percent of the group wouldn't make it. Libby made the cut.

From there, the coaches had to make a final cut of 20. And guess what?

"She made it again," her dad said proudly.

Normally an outside midfielder, Libby was assigned to a different position on the development squad. As an outside defender, she learned to look at the field differently and thrived in the unfamiliar position.

The team played against the teams from the three other regions of the country, practiced drills and got pointers from the coaches and trainers. Libby and the other players also were reminded that they were among the best in the country. Many players on the national team, the coaches pointed out, got their start in the Olympic Development Program.

"They said, "A few of you might make it in the next few years,' " Libby said.

Libby plans to try out for the Olympic Development Program again next year. She also wants to follow in the footsteps of her soccer idols, Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, and one day make the national women's team.

Playing on the regional team capped a spectacular summer for Libby, a freshman at Tarpon Springs High School. Before she achieved individual glory, Libby's local club team, the Countryside Lightning, competed in the state championship game in June.

The game was in a scoreless tie and went into overtime. Libby kicked the only goal of the game, and the Lightning won the state championship in the under-14 age group.

"It's kind of a heady thing as a parent," said Libby's father, a State Farm insurance agent. "I've been involved in sports my whole life, and I've never been a state champion."

Libby's coach on the Lightning team said she's one of the best players he has seen.

"She's the ideal player. She does everything I say," Jay Hundt said.

He appreciates that Libby is a tough player, and that she hasn't let the success go to her head. She had an amazing summer, Hundt pointed out, the kind of summer many young athletes dream about. Yet she continues to be pleasant and hard-working.

"The beautiful thing about Libby is that even if she didn't have soccer, she'd still be a great kid," he said.

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