September 24, 2013

Ringing out

Belles have climbed to top level of competition

Chris Whitfield
chriswhitfield@daltoncitizen.com

— Five years ago, a girls soccer club was formed with a handful of local players by a coach who wanted to see how their talent stacked up against players from around the Southeast. Growing pains ensued, but success soon followed as the team rose through the ranks of the Georgia Youth Soccer Association (GYSA).

Now that group includes a mix of all-star talent from northwest Georgia, southern Tennessee and northeast Alabama. The Belles are the first team from northwest Georgia to compete in the GYSA Athena program’s A1 division — the highest level of under-19 competition for GYSA girls soccer — Belles coach John-Eric Bolger said.

The team has exceeded even Bolger’s expectations.

“When we first started, we took our lumps — big time,” Bolger said. “We would go down to tournaments in Atlanta, and it wasn’t unlike some of the problems the (high school) teams around here have when they hit the playoffs. It was about developing the skills of the core group. It is a very modest group, but we have good players and the level we have gotten to has been impressive.”

Bolger coached club soccer in California for 15 years. He began the Belles in the fall of 2008 after moving to the area. What started as a small group of under-17 players has expanded to 25 players on the current roster, and three of the team’s alumni are playing at the collegiate level — Paige Smyth is at LaGrange College, while Casey Gregg and Macey Raines are at Shorter University.

The Belles are 2-0 early in a season that will last until mid-November. Their GYSA division includes eight teams from metro Atlanta but also stretches south to Columbus and Macon.

It’s a long way from 2009, when the Belles first began playing in the GYSA. In the association, teams are categorized with a level from A to D, with A being the highest. The Belles started as a C team and progressed higher each year. Although they are an under-19 team, many of the players are 17 or younger.

The Belles won the United States Youth Soccer Association state tournament in the summer of 2012 and advanced to the Region 3 championship for a chance to compete in the National President’s Cup. The team lost in the regionals of what is the second-highest competitive level in the United States Youth Soccer Association.

The Belles include local high school players from Dalton (Rocio Carrizales, Liz Cloud and Alondra Salaises), Northwest Whitfield (Andrea Garcia, Juliana Gomez, Vanessa Lara and Nancy Paz) and Southeast Whitfield (Andrea Lopez), as well as players who are currently enrolled at Dalton State College (Selena Gomez, Alejandra Salaises, Diana Sandate and Vanessa Vega).

Lopez was selected for the Georgia Olympic Development Program two years ago, and Alejandra Salaises said the Belles who are also Dalton State College students hope the school will start a women’s soccer program or that they’ll be able to find a spot on a college team after playing in this league this fall.

There are also players from Catoosa County, Bartow County, Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga and a player from Fort Payne, Ala.

“In terms of bigger numbers and a bigger all-around understanding of the game, there is a big group of youth soccer players in the area which is exceptionally talented,” Bolger said. “It has been great, and I think that the girls have enjoyed it as well. We can compete with any team from around the state.”

The players certainly enjoy it.

“I loved it when I first started and I really love it now,” said Alejandra Salaises, a center back. “It makes you a better player to play with the rest of the best players in the area. When we first started, we were at the bottom. People don’t really know us, so we surprise a lot of people. Now we believe we can play with any of the teams in the league.”

Paz is the leading scorer in the league with three goals after the Belles opened with a 2-0 win over Columbus and a 4-0 victory over Alpharetta. They were off this past weekend and will resume their schedule Saturday against the Concorde Fire Elite from Atlanta in Kennesaw. Alejandra Salaises said players have overcome playing for different high schools and different teams in area recreation leagues to make the Belles a success.

“We play each other in high school and we play in the local leagues, and we may not have liked each other during the high school season, but now we are like best friends,” she said. “We have such great team chemistry and all get along together so well. If we have a new girl, we welcome them with open arms. We have a blast when we go to tournaments. It is just so much fun together.”

And while the face of northwest Georgia boys soccer — which had three teams (Dalton, Southeast and Northwest) advance to the semifinals of the Georgia High School Association Class 4A state tournament this spring — may be Hispanic, Bolger is especially proud of the ethnic diversity of the Belles. He said that the team is evenly divided between Hispanic and Caucasian players.

“We have fun with it amongst the players and give each other a hard time,” Bolger said. “The girls will tell you at certain times I will allow them to split up, and they will tend to really split (by ethnicity), but for someone to show up and take a look at our team, you couldn’t tell. They work so well together and they have great harmony.

“What makes it noteworthy is we feel like we have some of the best female players no matter if they are white or Hispanic. I think that is a point of pride. Something that all of the payers would be very proud of.”