Posted on: Friday, July 10, 2009
Published by: Sharie Epp (Times Colonist)
A year ago, Darren Jones couldn't see much of a future in soccer. Now the 17-year-old midfielder is playing on the Victoria Highlanders first team, and has gone from not planning to go to university to accepting a soccer scholarship to Western Michigan.
It's all about player development in the Premier Development League and the Highlanders.
The freshman team (3-5-4) takes on the Seattle Wolves (7-2-3) today in a 4 p.m. start at City Centre Stadium, after playing to a 3-3 draw with the Wolves in Seattle on Friday. Victoria is in tough as far as making the playoffs this season, but for youngsters such as Jones, the Highlanders' results go much deeper than the win/loss columns.
"We're more than just what appears on the field," said Steve Simonson, the Highlanders assistant coach, director of youth development and coach of the reserve squad. "Our goal is about creating opportunities for young people."
The opportunities for Jones began after a friend dragged him out to tryouts for the Lower Island Under-18 select team, which happened to be coached by Simonson as a way to establish a link between Island players and the Highlanders. Simonson's professional approach and innovated drills rekindled the spark in Jones, a veteran of Island select and B.C. provincial teams, and the Claremont grad joined the Highlanders reserve team this spring.
"He helped me learn to love the game again," said Jones, who started two recent road games, and saw action in Victoria's 6-1 victory over Yakima last weekend. The "next level" has been an eye-opening thrill. "It was awesome. It was so professional. I never experienced that sort of environment before."
The Highlanders, whose parent body is the United Soccer League, has a mandate to produce elite calibre local players within their own organization. What the players, who already thought they were at an elite level, soon find out is there are levels, and then there are levels.
"What they've been doing has always been good enough to keep them at the top," Simonson said about the young players.
"It's about having somewhere to go versus you've arrived," Simonson said. "I tell them, 'There is a next level, and here's what you need to do differently to get there.'"
Other reservists who've seen action with the first team include midfielder Chris Arnett and forward Andrew Ravenhill, and defender Bobby Eng has also caught the eye of Highlanders coach Colin Miller. The reserve team only plays exhibition games.
"They're four terrific young lads, and there are more beyond that, as well," Miller said, adding he's looking for the right attitude, good habits, an understanding of the game and a level of consistency from the up-and-comers. "They'll be given the opportunity. That's the future of the club."
From the way he's played as a callup, it's clear Jones is figuring out the criteria. Playing against Kitsap, and taking on some big, tough former semi-pro players from England, he was terrific, said Miller.
"For me, I thought he was the best player in the park," Miller said, impressed with Jones's unflappable temperament, consistency and ability to make accurate passes. "He has an aggressive streak, he's very competitive, and he out-passed them."
"He consistently made the right decisions."
Simonson described Jones, an unimposing five-foot-11 and 163 pounds, as having the attitude of a bulldog -- someone who's completely unafraid to throw himself into the fray -- a result of years of playing lacrosse and rugby.
"When you play rugby, you can't really fear anyone, or you're going to be on the ground really fast," Jones said. "I don't think you can fear anyone, because then you're already beaten, and there's no point in competing."
And competing is exactly what Jones is doing these days.