After Jennifer Senette graduated from Soldotna High School in 2003, she figured she was more or less done with competitive soccer. She was content to play on the reserve team at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where she could enjoy playing the game at a high level without some of the drawbacks of being a varsity intercollegiate athlete.
“Collegiate soccer wasn’t really my goal,” Senette said. “I played on the reserve team, which was pretty much what I was looking for. We got to practice with the team, but we didn’t travel. It was a nice combination of playing soccer but not having to put in the time commitment that a varsity player would.”
Then Senette signed on with a study abroad program, and a funny thing happened when she arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, last fall to study political science and economics at Charles University.
“I had told the director of the program I was interested in playing rec league soccer, anything of that variety, maybe play once a week. I wasn’t looking for any particular level, I just wanted to play,” Senette said.
“Something was lost in the translation. That day, he made some phone calls to the big guns, and that night, I had a tryout with a big team.”
That big team was SK Slavia Prague, a squad well-known in Europe because its men’s side many clubs in Europe field a men’s and a women’s team regularly advances deep into UEFA Cup competition, while the women’s team plays in the Czech Republic’s first division, the soccer equivalent of the major leagues.
“When the director told me that’s who my tryout was with, I was kind of taken aback. It’s not something they normally do. I guess they were intrigued by the idea of an American,” Senette said.
Senette said her first experience with the club was at an exhibition match with the men’s team. At a dinner party following the game, she was told to show up for the next practice.
“I just kept showing up. I felt like I was in limbo because nobody spoke English to me. About six weeks later, when the roster was open to having changes, I was asked if I wanted to be added to the roster full-time, so it was actually a pretty long try-out process,” Senette said.
It took a while before Senette could take the pitch for Slavia Prague as some international paperwork needed to be sorted out. European clubs also limit teams to using three international players in a match, and the team already had three established Slovakian players.
Senette did say she was fortunate because the team generally practiced in the evenings and played matches on weekends, and she was able to schedule her classes in the mornings.
Senette said the hardest part was figuring out where she fit in on the team.
“There was the language, and the style of soccer is different. It’s really difficult to articulate, but there’s a very noticeable difference in the style of play. It’s the highest level I’ve ever played at. It’s amazing,” Senette said.
“The style of play is more technical. In the U.S., I played on a lot of teams here, and we maybe rely more on athleticism, speed and strength. Over there, obviously, they’re great athletes, but the focus isn’t on speed training or weight training. It’s based on the technical skills you would use in game.”
Senette said she has had the opportunity to play quite a bit, getting time while other players are out with injuries, or if a player in another position isn’t the right matchup for a particular opponent.
“I actually did get to play a great deal. I’ve never been a starter I didn’t expect to be so it’s very humbling. It’s definitely a learning experience,” Senette said.
Senette said she’s even overcome the language barrier, at least on the pitch, something that has enhanced her cross-cultural experience.
“Czech is one of the most difficult and complicated languages in the world. I took language classes through my university, but it’s so much more rewarding when you need to understand the language. I’m pretty much to the point where I can understand what’s going on. I understand everything at training, and in everyday life, I understand a good bit,” Senette said.
“Studying abroad is interesting, but if you’re sequestered with other American students, if that’s who you live with, you don’t have any incentive to get out of your comfort zone. I’ve come out of this with 22 really good friends. It’s been amazing. I’ve gone home on weekends with girls to wherever they live it’s been an amazing experience.”
Though school doesn’t start for another month, Senette already is headed back to Prague for training camp with her team. Slavia Prague lost to crosstown rival Sparta Prague in June to close out last season, missing out on chance to play in the Champions’ League, a competiton for winners of Europe’s domestic leagues. Senette is excited about her club’s prospects this season.
“They’re preparing for Champions’ League competition, we have to wait for the next go-round, but we have a great opportunity,” Senette said. “I was really hoping we could pull through, but we have a good chance again this year.”
Thornton headed to Greenville College
Tyler Thornton, a recent graduate of Skyview High School, is headed to Greenville College in Greenville, Ill., to play soccer for the Panthers.
Thornton, 18, said he was noticed by college recruiters while playing with the Alaska North Stars, a traveling competitive team, at Outside tournaments.
Thornton, who said he plans to study mechanical engineering, said he was attracted to the program because of its status as an up-and-comer. Thornton said the school was preparing to make the leap from NCAA Division III to Division II.
“I’m pretty excited about it. It’s nerve-racking leaving family and friends, but I can’t wait. It’s going to be so much fun,” Thornton said.
Thornton said the North Stars played tournaments in Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and North Carolina.
Thornton said he was recruited as a defensive midfielder or forward and expects to have a chance to play as a freshman.
The Next Level highlights Kenai Peninsula athletes who have gone on to participate in athletics beyond high school. If you know of such an athlete, contact the Clarion sports department by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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