The league of extraordinary athletes

Dec. 31, 1969, 7 p.m. | By Katherine Epstein | 51 years ago

There are certain things that Blair varsity softball coach Louis Hoelman tells his fielders to look for in a batter that have nothing to do with quick hands, powerful forearms or a great trigger step. If she is wearing fancy cleats or a spray-painted helmet, he tells his outfielders to take a step back. If she has a certain swagger, a confidence at the plate that comes from playing hundreds of tournament games every summer, he tells his infielders to be ready for anything. If she is a member of a travel club softball team, says Hoelman, then this girl can play.

She is then a member of the elite group of athletes for whom varsity sports are mere recreation. Off the field, their differences lie in a few physical anomalies: hair frosted blond by daily chlorine baths, badly bruised shins or the number 23 identically imprinted on cleats, bags, helmets, blankets and sweatpants. On the field, they demonstrate a physical prowess and mental presence that comes from playing high-stakes games and tournaments against the strongest area competition.

In soccer, softball and swimming, these stellar athletes push Blair teams to the brink of excellence but often no farther. They sparkle as all-too-rare bright spots in every incoming freshman class and leave coaches scrambling for more.

"Playing to win"

In high-school sports, the teams with the most club players are the teams that win. Blair's girls' varsity soccer team has never beaten Wootton, Whitman or Churchill, three upcounty soccer powerhouses traditionally stacked with club players. Girls' varsity soccer coach Bob Gibb names club players as the difference between Blair and dominant upcounty programs. "They've got a lot of players who can change the game," he says. "We've got a couple."

These players, likely to make varsity as freshmen and virtually guaranteed to do so as sophomores, filter up to Blair only sporadically, often sidetracked by private-school recruitment, says Gibb.

As a freshman, Sophie Esparza, now a sophomore, made varsity as the starting sweeper and earned All-Division honors. She has been playing soccer with Washington Area Girls' Soccer (WAGS), the highest level of girls' soccer competition in the area, since she was in third grade.

Gibb credits the cutthroat competition of WAGS with producing the area's finest players. "The principle behind a club sport is that these are athletes who take their sport very seriously," says Gibb. "You get good competition, and you're playing to win."

After each of the fall and spring seasons, the bottom teams in the league are dropped, to be eagerly replaced by a team on the WAGS waiting list.

The desire and the Fire

The Blair softball program has been blessed this year with the arrival of freshman Michelle Linford, starting shortstop and number-three batter for the Washington Senators, the third-ranked 14-and-under (14U) team in the U.S. Three games into her first varsity season, she has a 1.50 ERA, bats .550 and leads the team with 7 RBI and two home runs. Her throw is more accurate, more powerful and more polished than any other player's on the team, and as a freshman, she is Blair's best player at every single position, according to Hoelman.

Blair coaches must wait for stars like Linford and Esparza to surface at Blair. County policy forbids coaches from managing teams in the off-season. But Hoelman longs for the spark that travel players add to his lineup and is no longer satisfied with one every few years. He credits 2003 Blair graduates and travel players Carly Vieira and Emma Simson with "raising the bar for higher-level softball at Blair." He has worked with softball parents to form the Takoma Park Fire, a group that will bring competitive softball to the downcounty area.

Swimming for distance

While softball and soccer players gain a distinct advantage with an already secure spot on a competitive club team, swimmers can gain access to club coaching and competition merely by paying the $200 fee to register as a member of the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club (RMSC).
All MCPS swim teams can only provide pool time for two practices a week, so Blair's strongest competitors are those who practice six days a week as members of the RMSC for a total of 14 hours a week. Junior co-captain Patrick Detzner, who joined RMSC as a freshman on the advice of Blair swim coach David Swaney, directly equates club participation with swimming success, especially in the higher ranks of the county. "Two times a week is not enough swimming to really improve," he says. Detzner estimates that 80 to 90 percent of qualifiers for Metros, the biggest event of the Blair season, are on a club team and that all of the top 16 finishers at Metros swim daily.

Detzner swims as a member of the by-invitation-only National Training Group (NTG), the most competitive program that RMSC offers. NTG mandates attendance at seven weekly practices in six days, making one 4:45-6:00 a.m. practice unavoidable. Detzner and freshman David Vuong are the only two Blair swimmers to have recorded sub-five-minute 500-yard freestyle times.

Vuong has been swimming competitively since he joined RMSC as an eight-year-old "mini." He swims the one-mile and 1000-yard freestyle events, distances which far exceed the scope of high-school swimming. Vuong has qualified for Eastern Zones, making him one of the two best distance swimmers on the upper East Coast.

The payoff

Blair's best athletes must pay a steep price for their skills in fees as well as in time commitment. RMSC charges NTG swimmers a $670 annual practice fee to pay for pool maintenance. WAGS soccer tops out as the most expensive club sport—Esparza estimates that she spends $1000 a season, three seasons a year, on soccer fees. The Senators charge a $500 registration fee and an estimated $1000 per season to pay for tournament travel, equipment and clothing.

Linford participates in tournaments throughout the year (she played five games on April 10). She will play in an unrelenting procession of 35 tournaments all summer long. She revels in the payoffs her commitment has brought her, like the 280-foot over-the-fence home run she hit at the end of last season for the Senators.

She has helped fuel Hoelman's yearning for fellow travel-ball players as well. "The intensity [Linford] brought to the team right away, when pitching," says Hoelman, "has made everyone pick up their game."

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Katherine Epstein. Katherine Epstein is seventeen years old and reasonably tall, with short blond hair and a medium build. Her favorite turn-ons are long legs, chocolate and rowing. She will love the Boston Red Sox until the day she dies. More »

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