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Soccer elite converges on 'Boro for GA State Cup
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Statesboro High's Alex Wagner, left, celebrates after scoring the second of his two goals against Southeast Bulloch during a 3-1 victory April 9 at Womack Field. Wagner will take part in the boys' U17 division of the Georgia State Cup this weekend. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff



    For two days, Statesboro and the campus of Georgia Southern University will be playing host to some of the best soccer talent in all of Georgia.

    A longtime mainstay of the Atlanta area, the Georgia State Cup will be making its first trip to Statesboro as boys and girls in seven different age groups — ranging from U13 to U19 — will compete in their semifinal and championship games.

    “This is the final leg of a huge process,” tournament director Sharron Safriet said. “Last week in Columbus, we held group stages where the final four teams for each age group were determined. Some teams even had to compete in play-in games to get to that point. Overall, we’re talking about 212 teams as a part of this event.”

    That massive number stems from the fact that the tournament is open to all club teams in the state. Even smaller teams — ‘minnows’, if you were to equate it to the similarly-structured FA Cup that is contested in English professional soccer — have a chance to win their way to the final weekend.

    But it’s mostly the top of the Georgia soccer landscape that has made it to the final weekend of the tournament. Many of the younger teams have high rankings in both the state and within a 12-state ‘region’ as ranked by GotSoccer Magazine.

    In the older ranks, there is also no shortage of highly rated teams. Additionally, teams competing at the older levels this weekend will feature plenty of individuals who have signed on with Division I schools to continue their playing careers beyond high school. Even more impressive, there will be some players in action who are members of player pools from which the United States national team is built.

    “This is the crème de la crème,” Safriet said. “We’re always excited to have such talented players take part in the tournament.

    “And we always look for the best facilities to showcase the event. Darin (Van Tassell) and Heidi (Jeffers) and the entire committee to bring the tournament to Statesboro has done an excellent job. The most important thing is to make this a great experience for the players and I think that’s what we’ll get in Statesboro.”

    In addition to the stellar play on the field, the arrival of the Georgia State Cup in Statesboro should also be a boost for a town that could be a new hotspot for the sport.

    Currenty, many of the area's best prep players have to travel to Augusta, Atlanta and points beyond in order to find a top-notch club team to play for during their school's offseason.

    If Statesboro can become a routine stop for prestigious tournaments such as the State Cup, it stands to reason that the area could bcome a breeding ground for high-level club teams that all of South Georgia is in need of.

    "Early in the selection process, we knew that most people weren't thinking about soccer when they thought about this part of the state," Van Tassell said. "But we have some good players and programs. If we can continue to bring in events like this, it should only add to what kinds of teams and players that Statesboro can produce in the future."

    While the teams are coming from far and wide, two players out of the hundreds that will suit up this weekend will be right at home.

    Nick Wells is a forward for the U19 Georgia Storm 96 Gold squad who will return to town later this summer to begin his sophomore season with the Georgia Southern men’s team. Last season, Wells saw action in 15 games with the Eagles and scored a pair of goals, including a game-winner in GSU’s victory over the eventual Sun Belt Conference champions from Hartwick.

    Down in the U17 boys division, the only high school player from the area will be getting his kicks in.
    Alex Wagner has quickly developed into one of Statesboro High’s biggest threats, patrolling the defensive line while also playing up at times and bringing life to the Blue Devils’ offense. As a center back for his AFC Lightning ’98 Elite team, Wagner is taking his game to the next level.

    With the vast majority of the teams making this weekend’s final four hailing from the metro Atlanta area, Wagner made the choice to endure six-hour round trips to practice with his Peachtree City-based squad. That’s a lot of back-and-forth, but he believes that the experience is worth it.

    “We face so many great teams,” Wagner said. “It really keeps you on your toes. There are games where you play against national (pool player) guys and games where you look and see scouts on the sidelines. It can make you nervous, but that’s the kind of thing that makes us all better and gets us closer to our goals.”

    Wagner’s team’s first game — as well as many others — will be streamed live, free, online at gasoccercup.com.

    In all, 38 games will be played across five fields set up at GSU’s grounds at the Recreation and Activities Center and at the Georgia Southern soccer stadium. Weather permitting, all semifinals will be contested Saturday and all championship games will be played Sunday. The girls’ U18 and U19 divisions have already narrowed their brackets down to two teams and will forego semifinal games while ending their tournaments Sunday.

    Following the crowning of state champions, division winners will be eligible to compete in the larger, national tournament that the Georgia State Cup feeds into.
              
    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.