Soccer is still finding its footing in Janesville and surrounding communities.
The local high schools have had good teams, but nothing like the state championship programs produced in the suburbs of Madison and Milwaukee.
This weekend, several boys from Janesville, Milton and surrounding communities will be playing in Appleton against those type of upper-echelon teams.
They are part of the Rock Soccer Club U16 boys team. These players from Janesville, Milton, Beloit, Fort Atkinson and Cambridge will represent the Rock Soccer Club in the Wisconsin State Championship tournament.
Just getting this team to the WSC is a monumental accomplishment for the RSC program.
“This is a big deal in the state soccer community,” the team’s assistant coach Don Vesely wrote in an email about the qualification to the tournament. “We are playing amongst the blue bloods of the sport.”
Twelve teams are entered in the tournament. The top four teams advance to the semifinals in Milwaukee next weekend.
From there, a team will advance to the Midwest Regional Championship in Saginaw, Michigan.
Just as minor league baseball players move from Class A to Class AA and up to the majors, youth soccer teams can move up a competitive ladder. Teams start at Recreational level, then advance to Competitive.
The next step—the State First Division—is the level this RSC squad moved up into this season. The State Premier League is the next rung up.
Mike Clarquist, the squad’s head coach and the Rock County Soccer Club Academy director, said the 13-year-old organization has had only two teams reach the State First Division level before this U16 boys squad.
“One of those two teams (U18 girls) is now playing in the Premier League,” Clarquist said.
The Premier League is the next step up. From there, teams can advance to the Midwest Conference First Division, and finally to the major leagues—the Midwest Conference Premier League.
Eight of the 18 players on this boys team are enrolled at Craig. They are sophomores Luke Brown and Tim Sheetz, and freshmen Cole Vesely, Reed Kelly, Joe Richardson, Joel Jaramillo, Andre Alvarez-Jacobs and Max Werner.
Franklin Middle School student Kenneth Zavala, and Oakhill Christian School sophomore Dershaye Fry also are on the RSC squad.
Three others are enrolled at Milton High. They are freshmen Gavin Clarquist, Joey Leverez and Connor Opdahl.
The squad is completed by Beloit Memorial freshmen Jackson Moore and Eamonn Rougvie; Fort Atkinson High freshmen Caleb Strayer and Scott Buchta, and Cambridge High freshman Zachary Huffman.
The majority of the boys have played together for two to three years, advancing from the Madison Area Youth Soccer Association to the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association.
The squad battled long odds to make it to the Wisconsin State Championships.
The team won two play-in games at Union Grove, which had to catch the eye of the people in charge of seeding.
“We were seeded 19 of 19 teams,” Clarquist said.
And this weekend they will face teams that are playing in a league two levels above them.
“Every team that we play this weekend plays in the Midwest Conference,” Clarquist said. “These are teams that travel regionally for their league games—to Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota.”
But the old sports adage is you get better playing teams better than you. If that’s the case, the RSC squad will return much better.
“We are very much an unknown team in this tournament,” Clarquist said. “(We) are true underdogs.”
And while the Rock County Soccer club has been around since 2006, it is still a corner kick away from its goal.
“Obviously Janesville is a big city,” Clarquist said. “But it’s a great baseball city, and kids here have a lot of sports to choose from.”
RSC has about 400 participants from a 3-year-old level to U19.
Clarquist, who is from Elkhorn, said that city’s soccer club has more players than RSC.
“That’s become the big sport,” Clarquist said. “It’s overtaken football.”
There are signs something like that could be in the future of Janesville.
Clarquist said 112 of the 400 RSC participants are in the 3- to 5-years-old division.
You have to start young.
Tom Miller is a sports writer/page designer for The Gazette.