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Soccer camp offers skills, chance to be seen

For years, Ramstein coach Dominik Ludes has assembled a group of DODDS-Europe boys soccer standouts at season’s end and taken them to the United States, where the newly-formed team would play in a series of summer tournaments. This succeeded in getting a handful of DODDS-Europe’s best players in front of college coaches who might offer them scholarships. But Ludes sensed that more was possible.

“I thought, ‘Let’s try it the other way around,’” Ludes recalled. “’Let’s get those coaches to Germany.’”

Thus the College Soccer Showcase Camp was born. This year’s event, open to boys and girls in grades seven through 12, is set for May 24-26 at Sportschule in Bitburg, Germany, starting just two days after the end of the DODDS-Europe soccer championship tournament.

Ramstein senior Brienno Illari will attend the camp for the second straight year.

“That was the first time I was able to be connected with coaches,” Illari said. “It was an awesome opportunity.”

Illari’s enthusiasm for the event likely stems from the fact that, for him, it has already fulfilled its mission.The Royals star has signed his letter of intent to play next year at Virginia Military Institute, an NCAA Division I program in Lexington, Va.

Illari isn’t the only DODDS-Europe prospect to attend last year’s camp and go on to sign a college scholarship. Sigonella’s Alessandro Thomas will join Illari at the Division I level with DePaul; Illari’s Ramstein teammate Cameron Hansen is bound for Division II Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla.; and Patch’s Christian Rauschenplat has caught on with two-year program Northern Oklahoma College.

The four are furthering a trend established by last year’s inaugural camp. Heidelberg standouts Andrew Guelle (Dubuque), Vincent Harrington (Iona) and Hannes Rogers (Merchant Marine Academy) earned collegiate deals after attending the Showcase.

The camp isn’t free. Participants pay 300 euros for the weekend, which includes room and board in addition to the instruction from visiting college coaches. But families of players chosen for Ludes’ select teams were responsible for the cost of a round-trip transatlantic flight and two weeks of transportation and lodging. Put in that light, Ludes said, the camp is a bargain.

“Not everybody has the financial backing to send the kids to the U.S. to play in these tournaments,” Ludes said.

Of course, just attending the camp doesn’t guarantee a scholarship. In fact, most of those attending won’t receive one. But players who have participated say they’ll gain experience and perhaps find out if they’re capable of playing at the next level.

The camp doesn’t always lead directly to a scholarship with one of the schools in attendance.

Thomas attended the camp in Bitburg last spring. But he signed his LOI earlier this month with DePaul, a school that wasn’t represented at the camp. Thomas made initial contact with DePaul coaches through an associate of his father.

Still, the Showcase was a positive experience for Thomas. He developed a relationship with the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and was considering signing on with the school before the appeal of NCAA Division I soccer swung his decision. And the on-field time with college coaches gave the All-Europe stalwart an idea of what college soccer might be like.

“As a player, I was exposed to just how a college coach runs his practices,” Thomas said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

As it turned out, Thomas’ opportunity might lead to more opportunities for future DODDS-Europe stars. DePaul is among the 15 collegiate programs committed to attend this year’s camp, Ludes said. Other schools scheduled to participate in the camp are the University of Wisconsin, Bowling Green State, IUPUI, Northern Kentucky, North Carolina Wesleyan, Elmira College, Concordia, Denver University, Washington University-St. Louis, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Dubuque, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy.

While last year’s camp was open only to boys, this year’s camp is also available to girls. So far, Ludes said, about 80 boys and 35 girls have registered.

The three days of camp carry the potential to account for the next four years of an attendee’s life. That kind of pressure might be overwhelming. But Thomas and Illari agree that the tension subsides when cleats meet the turf.

“I’d never been in an experience like that before,” Illari said. “Once you actually got to talk to the coaches, they put you at ease. They just wanted you to play your game.”

Thomas said the chance to share a field with college coaches is far more valuable than sending or posting video clips online, the strategy he and countless other DODDS-Europe prospects have tried in hopes of catching the right eye.

“It is hard to reach out to these coaches,” Thomas said. “As a DODDS player it’s very difficult because a lot of coaches do want to see players in person and see how they interact during the game.

“It’s been rough, but thankfully it worked out.”

While Ludes’ camp may develop into a consistent pipeline from DODDS-Europe to college, it’s not the only possible path.

Earlier this spring, Vicenza senior Alex Frank signed her letter of intent to attend VMI, accepting an offer that she said includes an athletic scholarship covering half of her tuition. While she’ll end up on the same campus as Illari this fall, her journey was far different.

Frank had a friend who attended VMI, and through that contact began communicating with the school’s coaching staff. With initial interest established, she registered for the program’s summer camp and flew to the U.S. When she landed and checked in with coaches to confirm her schedule, however, she learned the camp was canceled. Luckily, she was still able to meet with VMI coaches; now, she thinks the “one-on-one” interaction she happened into helped her cause more than a spot in a crowded camp might have.

“I think that worked out to my benefit,” Frank said.

Frank, coming off an All-Europe junior season in which she piled up 20 goals and 11 assists, then settled into a more conventional recruiting pattern. She maintained email contact with VMI coaches and took her official visit in November, spending two days touring the campus and athletic facilities, meeting the current Keydet team and watching practice. She made her verbal commitment to the school while on her tour. A few months later, she signed and filed the necessary paperwork to make her decision official, choosing VMI over a similar opportunity at Liberty University.

With her future secure, Frank has spent the spring focusing on school and the Cougars, who she hopes to lead to another shot at the Division II European championship after losing to Naples in last year’s final.

Fellow DODDS-Europe girls soccer players Johanna Quinn of Kaiserslautern and Alison Rittenhouse of Vilseck have also committed to play college soccer. Quinn will attend NCAA Division II Mercyhurst University, while Rittenhouse is set to play for NAIA school West Virginia Tech.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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