It is a Thursday evening in early February, and the Pleasanton Marriott in the Bay Area suburb of Pleasanton is a study in contrasts. The parking lot is full, but the hotel restaurant is empty and only a handful of folks are sitting at the lobby bar. When you stroll down the corridor to the banquet room, however, there are dozens of young girls, the oldest in college sweatshirts, and their families milling around outside the banquet room. Inside, the podium table stretches from one wall to the other with 21 places set with gift bags, paper and pen.
It's signing night for Rage, a local girls soccer program. Signing night has become an annual ritual at many competitive girls programs, an opportunity to honor -- and showcase -- those players who have signed letters of intent to play college soccer. For the last five years, Rage has hosted a signing night to honor its seniors headed to college. Outgoing Rage president John Cligny calls the night the club's most exciting event of the year.
Rage, whose '85 team won the U-17 national title in 2002 and U-19 title in 2004, has graduated 133 players who have gone on to play college soccer since 2001. Rage's 2009 class consists of 21 players -- 20 headed to Division I programs and one to NAIA school Southern Oregon -- representing three teams.
Most of the Rage seniors play on the '91 team, which technical director Philippe Blin calls his "dream team" and which finished third at the 2007 U-16 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, missing out on a shot at the title on goal difference after going 2-1 in group play.
The Rage star is Santa Clara-bound Olivia Klei, a starter on the U.S. team that finished second at the 2008 Under-17 Women's World Cup in New Zealand, but Rage also has players headed to 2008 sweet 16 women's programs UCLA (Sophie Metz and Ahsha Smith), Notre Dame (Maddie Fox) and Boston College (Maddie Payne).
For Rage, signing night is a chance to honor its seniors -- the room is packed with more than 200 family members and friends -- and educate them on what lies ahead. Former players Judy Coffman, Katie Mahoney and Kendra Perry talk about their college experiences -- the ups and downs of their careers -- and Erika Carlson, Rage's consulting psychologist, explains what makes them so successful.
A common thread of the talks is perspective, the ability to put soccer in the proper context. Carlson points out that one the unique qualities the Rage players have is their vulnerability. "You are willing to take direct feedback," she says.
Blin arrived at Rage in 2000 from another Northern California team, the Central Valley Mercury, winner of three straight national titles. The French-born coach is the club's inspirational leader, a coach the players love and fear. One player recalled how she had to have her mother yank her out of the car to take her to practice when she first joined the club's competitive program. Klei told how the players would hide behind one another when Blin came around to inspect their juggling.
Blin says he knew when the players were U-11s that they were a special group. He says a combination of factors accounted for such a large group of college-bound players: dedicated, skillful players, supportive, parent education at the younger age groups and a little bit of luck. Only Rage's '07 class matched the 21 seniors who went on to college.
A majority of the players began their careers in the club's recreational program. They were 8 when the USA won the 1999 Women's World Cup and are the first generation to grow up following that historic event for women's sports. Five players joined the program in high school.
"Team bonding helped with player integration," said Blin. "It is also easy to integrate players when they are as good (or better) as the current players on the team."
The Rage program encompasses 2,000 players, 400 of them in the competitive program. The club's staff works on managing the expectations of players and their families -- the dream of a college scholarship and the reality, the Rage senior classes notwithstanding, that only few players get scholarships and those scholarships are most often not full scholarships.
"We at Rage try to educate our parents regarding the realities of college scholarships," says Blin. "We also ask the following of the families within our club: 1) maintain their academic standard; 2) educate players and parents to be proactive regarding colleges they are interested in; 3) visit schools on your own; and 4) honest recommendations to college coaches from myself and the technical staff."