MOUNT DESERT, Maine — Opal Curless started playing soccer in kindergarten, playing at school and in recreational leagues. Even at that age, she had hopes and dreams.
“Every player wants to play on the national team,” said Curless, “but I never thought [too much] about it. I never expected to be called to the national team.”
That’s exactly what happened, though, around mid-April. She received an email telling her she had been selected to attend the U.S. Youth Soccer Association’s Under-14 girls soccer national training camp along with 47 other girls.
Players are evaluated by coaches and national scouts throughout the year at various venues, including state, regional and national tournaments and Olympic Development Program camps and tournaments.
“I started training hard,” said Curless, 14. “I was freaking out. ‘I’m going to national camp, this is crazy.’”
She still had the jitters after camp opened.
“I was definitely nervous,” admitted Curless. “These are the best 48 players from all over the country.”
MJ Ball, director of coaching at Blackbear United Football Club in Bangor, coaches Curless. He thinks the other players have as much reason to be in awe of her as she might be of them.
“As a coach, you love the player who looks you in the eye, listens and then goes out and executes what you have talked about that,” said Ball by email this week. “That’s Opal to a ‘T.’”
That ability to listen, digest and follow directions is an important aspect of training camp because they’re looking for players who will take to the instruction of these top-level coaches.
So, while the focus was finding who stood out, said Curless, “The [idea was to find out] who listened, who is coachable.”
There was more focus on the mental strength of the players, she added.
“When you make a play, you don’t want to put your team in a worse position than when you got the ball,” she said. “They were looking for the players who always put their team in a better position, who always know what they’re going to do before they get the ball, who are ahead of everyone [in the thought process].”
The ability to learn from mistakes is also a key ingredient.
“It’s hard not to say, ‘Why did I make that mistake?’ [But] you start thinking that and you forget the soccer part,” Curless said.
Curless normally is a center midfielder and usually played there at camp, but not always.
“They also put me at outside defender,” she said. “They go forward the entire game [and get involved more in the offense]. They overlap the midfielders, so it was really fun.”
The coaches try to identify the best players and worry later about where to play them.
Before she met them, Curless was apprehensive about the coaches.
“I heard they made you nervous, they were mean yelling, but these were really nice,” she said. “They were strict but they helped us put out our best effort.”
It was more than all soccer all the time.
“We got to meet the national team and Abby Wambach,” she said.
There was also plenty of time to meet the other players.
“I made tons of friends. It was fun meeting new people and hanging out with them,” Curless said.
She plans to keep striving for more.
“I came back motivated and raised my intensity level,” she said. “It was the best experience.”
Ball said Curless doesn’t try to dominate a game.
“She works extremely hard to get her teammates involved and keeps them involved in the game,” he said. “I’ve actually talked to her about being more selfish and looking to score first, then pass. She struggles with that which is probably why she is such a top-notch player.”
Also, before joining Blackbear, the 5-feet-7-inch Curless played on co-ed teams for Acadia Fire on Mount Desert Island.
“Playing against boys really helped her speed of play and confidence,” said Michael Curless, her dad and one of the founders of Acadia Fire.
The national training staff set up programs for the players to follow after their return.
“We had individual meetings with two coaches to talk about how to keep this intensity,” said Curless. “I just have to play with that intensity [all the time], no matter what others are doing.”
She’ll have plenty of opportunity to put those ideas into action as it’s going to be a busy summer for Curless, not even counting the next two national camps in August and September if she is chosen as one of the top 36 from the first camp.
“Next up are ODP state camps,” she said. “July 11, I go to Rhode Island, go through tryouts for four or five days.”
And there’s the Region I Tournament for the Blackbear United U-15 girls in Lancaster, Pa., June 28-July 3, which includes the winning team from each of the 15 Region I soccer associations, plus regular workouts at Blackbear.
Her busy schedule was punctuated when her return from training camp overlapped her Blackbear U-15 team’s appearance in the State Cup final on June 3.
The game against Seacoast United was originally scheduled earlier in the afternoon at Falmouth High School but was changed to 5:45 p.m.
“They agreed a player attending national camp shouldn’t be penalized,” said Ball.
Curless’ flight back from California arrived in Boston at 3:30 p.m.
“All my stuff was in carry-on,” she said. “I walked off the plane, [went straight out of the terminal] and got in the car.”
“We were going to be on time, but a bridge was flooded, so we had to take a detour,” said Michael Curless.
Opal was able to enter the game midway through the first half.
“We were already down 1-0 and to have her in the game made a difference,” said Ball, whose team rallied in the second half for a 2-1 win that put Blackbear into the Region I tourney. “It would have been tough to win without her.”
“It was cool playing the Cup final,” said Opal Curless. “I think I played so much better because of the camp.”
The hubbub of activity doesn’t faze her.
“I love soccer so much, I don’t really care,” she said. “There’s always time for fun. I wouldn’t change anything.”