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Brown will sign to play soccer at University of Louisville
Dreaming youth goalkeeper Paige Brown wondered.
SEMO Storm coach Dee Brown realized.
And professional soccer instructor Brian Jones recognized.
As for parents Rusty and Pam Brown, they drove and drove.
The dreams, insight, expertise and dedication will come to fruition today when Jackson High School senior Paige Brown signs a letter of intent to play soccer at the University of Louisville.
In some eyes, it may look like an unlikely achievement considering Paige never has played a single day of soccer at Jackson High School.
But in fact, it's been a precise, less-traveled route that Paige has been navigating -- much of it on the well-traveled corridor of I-55 to Fenton, Mo.
"We've done it since seventh grade now," Paige said. "Whatever mile marker we're at, I can tell you what town we're in on 55. I've gotten used to it. It doesn't even faze me. It's just a daily routine."
It's taken Paige from a raw talent to the lone goalkeeper on the St. Louis Scott Gallagher U18 ECNL team.
Paige said she had a dream of playing Division I soccer ever since she started playing traveling soccer.
But the athletic, independent thinking girl was without a plan.
"I didn't know how I was going to get there when I was playing down here, but once I moved to St. Louis, I knew how I could get there," Paige said.
For those not familiar with the hierarchy of youth soccer, the Scott Gallagher soccer team has lofty status. It is one of just 74 clubs that compete nationally in the girls Elite Club National League (ECNL), which is designed to identify and develop the best youth soccer talent to ultimately help the U.S. national team in international competition.
Exposure to world-class instruction, top competition and college coaches is all within the ECNL experience, and trips up I-55 unlocked that world. The road led to instruction from U.S. Women's National Team goalkeeping coach Paul Rogers, who is also the personal coach of longtime national team goalkeeper and two-time Olympic gold medalist Hope Solo. It's also led to a first-name basis relationship between Paige and the U.S. goalkeeper, and even some comparisons.
"The kind of joke of the various groups that she's been around, they call her 'Little Hope' because she kind of looks like her and dresses like her," said Tim Kelly, the Scott Gallagher girls goalkeeping coach and former professional player.
Kelly and Jones have worked most closely with Paige since she was in the seventh grade.
Jones played professionally in Europe and the U.S. and operates the St. Louis Goalkeeping Academy.
Through Jones' and Kelly's tutelage and her involvement in the Scott Gallagher program, Paige has turned heads. She was selected as the goalie on an 11-player All-Event Team chosen from among 40 U15 ECNL teams at the Disney Showcase. She made the Olympic Development Program Region II team last year that competed against the nation's three other region teams in Boca Raton, Fla., over Thanksgiving. She's received invitations to national camps and events.
Jones says people are sometimes taken aback by his assessment of Paige.
"I've been doing this for a long time, all my life, and I've played in Europe for five years. I've seen players and I've worked with players with all different levels of the game, and in my opinion, I'd be hard-pressed to find five female goalkeepers in the world at her age that are better," Jones said. "People that haven't seen her are a little skeptical, but then once they watch her play and watch her train, then they walk away shaking their heads."
Jones was one of the first to shake his head, and it happened at a week-long goalkeeper camp he held in Cape Girardeau in 2008.
Paige started playing rec league soccer around kindergarten and began playing on traveling teams by around third grade, first with Jackson United and later with the SEMO Storm.
It was when she started with the traveling teams that Paige said she went to full-time goalkeeper.
"I always liked to roughhouse and kind of take people out, so I guess that's why I like the position," Paige said.
And she flashed so much potential that her SEMO Storm coach, Dee Brown, approached her father.
"He come up to us one day and told us we need to get Paige to some more training, because what she needed and what she was capable of was more than he could give her, which I thought was pretty great for a coach to see something there," Rusty said. "And from that point on, it just seemed like it started going uphill for a lot of opportunities."
When the Storm dissipated, many of the girls went to play for SMSC. Paige did, too, but not with the girls. She enlisted with the boys.
"Looking back on it, she wanted a challenge," Rusty said. "The challenge was playing on the boys teams as opposed to playing on the girls teams."
It was around this time that Jones, who currently is the men's goalkeeper coach at SIU Edwardsville, conducted a camp in Cape. Attending was 12-year-old Paige, who had just finished sixth grade.
"Within 30 seconds you knew she was an athlete on a whole different spectrum, not just from a female perspective, although if you compare female athletes to Paige, she's off the charts," Jones said.
Paige started her trips to Jones' academy the following fall, which led to her joining Scott Gallagher months later.
She played for the club as an eighth grader, which required about three trips to St. Louis a week. When her freshman year rolled around, she played her second season of Gallagher and opted not to play for her high school team.
Paige said her unwillingness to play on the girls SMSC team and her later involvement with Gallagher led to some frosty relationships among former teammates, and it did factor into her decision to pass on high school soccer.
"It was more of a challenge for me," Paige said. "And after playing at that level in St. Louis in that league, and knowing what it's like, you want to stay there."
Missouri State High School Activities Association policy also didn't help the situation. The MSHSAA did not allow its players to have practices or games with club teams on days of high school practices or games. In effect, she would have missed three months of club soccer in the spring. Kelly noted when that time is multiplied over four years, it amounts to a year of club training.
"If she had been playing high school, there would have been a couple years where she really would have missed on some golden opportunities, and she wanted (those) opportunities," Rusty said. "That's why she didn't do high school and stayed practicing and playing in St. Louis."
Either Rusty, who works maintenance at Biokyowa Inc., or Pam, a dental hygenist, usually do the driving after work. Paige does homework on the after-school trips that sometimes last until midnight.
"It takes a toll on your family financially ... the time you spend, it's six hours gone every time you go up there," Rusty said. "That's six hours you don't have with the rest of your family. And that adds up by the end of the week. Paige hasn't been the only one that's gave up a lot. The rest of the family has to get her there -- her sister included."
Rusty and Pam make sure daughter Allie, a sophomore, also pursues her passion -- horses. Paige said Allie has finished as a runner-up grand champion in the Tennessee Walking national competition.
"She's just as big into horses as I am into soccer," Paige said.
Rusty and Pam's commitment to their children's dreams has been rewarded.
Through involvement with Gallagher, Paige got to meet and train with Rogers when she was 14. That came shortly after the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when Rogers was the goalkeeping coach for the St. Louis Athletica in the Women's Professional Soccer league that has since folded. Among the Athletica players was Solo.
Kelly refers to Paige as a "very, very dominant" player and thinks her exposure to top-level players was invaluable.
"I think she's got to kind of see how they take care of themselves and how they train," Kelly said. "A big part of her development is some of the goalies she's gotten to train with."
Paige says she's had "kick arounds" with Solo, and gotten to know the star.
"We'll go to some of the national team games and get free tickets from Paul, and we'll stay with the players in the hotel," Paige said. "I'll talk to Hope in the lobby if I see her and after the games."
Kelly has trained some talented goalkeepers over the years, including Solo. He said that Paige is the best player for her age that he's worked with -- "by far."
Jones described Paige -- who at 5-foot-6 1/2 stands about three inches shorter than Solo -- as "super quick" with a vertical leap in the mid-20s.
"She just does everything better," Jones said. "Everything she does, she does like a high-end boy. You just don't find that in the female game -- the way she dives, the way she takes her crosses, her breakaways and through balls. You just don't see girls handle it technically the way she does or the physical capabilities that she does -- the athleticism."
Kelly thinks Paige would have excelled at any sport she chose.
"She just happened to be a goalie," Kelly said.
Paige did compete in rec leagues in basketball and softball at a young age, and as a freshman, she ran track at Jackson and was a member of a 1,600-meter relay that reached the Class 4 sectional. But her passion always was soccer.
"Brian and I were just lucky enough that she just focused on soccer, especially in the girls game," Kelly said. "A lot of girls want to play other sports, whether its basketball, softball. ... Those athletes eventually are going to pick a sport, but for her to pick one position and really just give it a go, obviously helped her."
The five-plus years of training have harnessed the athleticism, and refined two of Paige's most unique skills -- decision-making and the ability to make stops.
"It comes down to goalies, the ones who make right decisions," Kelly said. "If you don't make good decisions, it doesn't matter how athletic or how tall you are. It comes down to who can make key stops, but more than anything else, it's the right decisions coming off the line."
Kelly has not even bothered to have another goalkeeper on the club's U18 ECNL team. He has no one to compete with her, and setting down Paige for another player would be a lose-lose proposition for both players at that level.
"If she keeps working hard -- the game and the position are funny -- it's one of the positions where kids, as long as they keep playing, continue to get better." Kelly said. "The more they play, the better decisions they're going to make, but for her, the sky's the limit."
Paige, who already has been invited to a national team camp of 24 players -- four were goalkeepers -- in her age group, ultimately aspires to be the U.S. Women's National Team goalkeeper. She has her eyes set on the U20 World Cup team that will compete in Canada in 2014.
"It's tough to project out six or seven years, but based on her development over the past four years, if that learning and development curve can continue, there's a pretty good shot that she can be the next Hope Solo," Jones said. "She could be the best female to ever play this game as a goalkeeper. Right now Hope Solo is the best female to ever play the position, bar none, and a lot of that is based on her athleticism and Hope's competitiveness and communication skills. But I think Paige has the ability to one day take that from her. Like I said, if the development curve continues.
"I think even today, Paige is even more technical than Hope Solo."
College recruiting website topdrawersoccer.com doesn't totally align with Jones' assessment. It has Paige ranked No. 2 among goalkeepers her age in the Heartland region and No. 17 in the nation.
Jones doesn't put much stock in the rankings, which he said are done by a few individuals who are going off a number of barometers.
"It's so subjective," Jones said. "You look at the BCS, at least there is an algorithm for it. ... It's just who gets the most press and whose team is doing the best, and who's getting called up for things."
The Gallagher U18 ECNL is sixth among nine teams in the Midwest Conference with a 6-7-1 record and a minus-7 goal differential. By comparison, division-leading Eclipse Select from a Chicago suburb is 13-2-0 with a plus-32 differential.
Regardless of the placement, her name is on the list of highly regarded prospects, and she did receive numerous offers from major Division I programs.
She felt Louisville was the best fit, and the situation is ripe for plenty of playing time next season. The Cardinals, who saw a 14-7-3 season end in a shootout in the championship game of the Big East tournament, graduated a senior goalkeeper and saw its two other goalkeepers, both freshmen, leave the program. Paige said her only competition at this time is a walk-on.
The school also is moving next season into the ACC, which Paige has long considered the top conference in college women's soccer.
"The coaches, I just felt like I'd known them," Paige said. "Just sitting there talking to them, I felt like I knew them before. I had to go with my gut instinct, and I'm glad I did because it's everything I wanted."