Not every day do you hear about an Oregon club soccer player participating on an elite age-group team based on the other side of the country.
But Central Oregon is home to two such players — Zach Emerson and Samuel Buzzas — who are making just such a situation work by playing on a team based in Florida.
“I've never really heard of people doing that, but I don't really know if it's common or not,” admits Buzzas, a freshman at Bend's Summit High School, about the transcontinental arrangement he and Emerson have with the Sunrise Elite 97/98 boys squad.
The team is a part of the Sunrise Soccer Elite program headquartered in the Fort Lauderdale area of Florida. Of the two local boys, Emerson, a speedy, goal-scoring forward who is a freshman at Mountain View High in Bend, began playing for the team first, starting about a year and a half ago. Eventually, he persuaded the squad to pick up his buddy Buzzas, a fleet and rangy center back. Buzzas started playing with the team this past fall.
“He got the defense looking a lot better,” Emerson says.
Emerson had joined the team after a player he knew from Tennessee — the only other player on the team not from Florida, Emerson notes — told the Sunrise coach about him when the squad was in need of a forward. Now, Emerson and Buzzas travel to tournament sites across the country together to attend tournaments with Sunrise.
And, in a benefit for their parents, at least, they do so at basically no cost. The team is sponsored by the computer-phone device company magicJack, which Stefani Emerson, Zach Emerson's mom, says pays for expenses like tournament fees and airfare. And one of the team families, she adds, has become something of a host family for the boys when they are in Florida.
That backing comes in handy with the squad's busy competition schedule. Next month, Sunrise is slated to play in the top U15 bracket at the Annandale Premier Cup in Annandale, Va. At the end of March, the squad will head to Texas for the Dallas Cup, an elite tournament that draws even international teams. Sunrise won the U14 division of the Dallas Cup in 2012.
Competing for a top-flight team such as Sunrise — the squad took second place in the U14 boys division at the 2012 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in South Carolina, though neither Emerson nor Buzzas played in that tournament — has been a boon to both Bend boys, exposing them to different styles of play and providing incentive to better their skills.
“Here, it's more about size, and then over there it's really technical, like you have to play a lot quicker and make decisions a lot faster on the ball,” Emerson observes.
Emerson's foot skills have progressed over the past year, he notes, and Buzzas says his fitness level has increased, as well as his “all-around technical abilities.”
“I think you can tell, when kids play at a higher level, when they're exposed to that, you get more comfortable in those pressure situations and you become a better player,” says Kyle Steinbaugh, the Oregon Rush director of coaching and the coach of Emerson and Buzzas' age-group team. “It's inevitable.”
Long before they started playing for Sunrise, Buzzas and Emerson were united by soccer. The two, both now 15, grew up in Central Oregon, started playing recreational soccer as children and then moved on to the more competitive club soccer scene, playing on teams from different clubs. By the age of 9 or 10, they were already competing against one another on the soccer fields of Bend.
“They smoked us all the time,” Buzzas recalls about Emerson's team.
Even as youngsters, the boys' talent for soccer was evident.
“I remember he was big and fast, and he could shoot (the ball) nicely,” Buzzas says about Emerson, who last fall helped Mountain View to the Class 5A state final — after knocking off Buzzas' Summit squad in the semifinal round.
“I just remember him being the fastest kid on the field,” Emerson says about his friend.
Eventually, the two became club teammates when the Bend area's two club programs merged and became the Oregon Rush Soccer Club. Both Emerson and Buzzas still train with their Rush team and play games with the Rush when they do not conflict with Sunrise's schedule. In fact, the duo attended a tournament in Arizona over the President's Day weekend with a Rush select squad made up of top players in Rush clubs located throughout the country. Their team won the U15 boys premier division.
“The way we look at it is, at Rush ... we're here to prepare our players for the next level for each player,” Steinbaugh says. “And for some players that might be high school, for some people it might be at college, (for others) it might be professionally. ... We are preparing kids for the next level. And whatever level that is, and for whichever kid that is, we're good enough and we understand that enough that we're not going to hold the kids back either.”
Such a busy soccer schedule is helping the boys, as Emerson puts it, develop a lot of “life tools.” He and Buzzas can fly on a plane alone, he points out, and get to hotels from airports. They are proactive with their schoolwork, they say, getting homework in advance from teachers when they know they will be absent or making it up when needed. And besides playing varsity soccer, they are active in other sports at their respective high schools: Emerson played basketball this winter and handled some of the kicking duties for the Cougars football team in the fall. And both boys plan to turn out for track this spring.
“The major benefit to Zach and Samuel (playing with Sunrise) is that they are multisport athletes. With a program like the Timbers, you are stuck just doing soccer,” notes Don Emerson, Zach's dad, referencing the Portland Timbers Youth Academy, the elite developmental soccer academy associated with Portland's Major League Soccer organization. “And they still get to play at the highest level possible for their age. Where if they were just doing the Timbers Academy, they would be playing at a very high level, but that's all that they would be able to do.”
But still, soccer is undoubtedly their focus. And on the horizon is the youth national championships, being staged in July this year in Kansas. The Sunrise team recently qualified to return to the event by going undefeated over seven games in U.S. Youth Soccer National League competition in November and December. (National League is one of two ways for teams to qualify for nationals. The other is to qualify through regional play.) Emerson scored six goals in those games, while Buzzas, who chipped in a score of his own, and the rest of the back line allowed just three.
Not bad for two boys from Bend.
“No matter what team we play, it's goal stopper, goal scorer,” Emerson says, referring to Buzzas and then himself. “It's a really good combo. He's fast, so no one gets around him, and it's nice not having to worry about getting scored on. I do my job, he does his job, and we're good.”