Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles featuring the Lawrence soccer teams that participate in the Premier league of Hearland Soccer Assn.
While the Kaw Valley Soccer Assn. league trains and plays in Lawrence, Mark Francis and his team are preparing to hit the road.
At various practice fields around the city, one can find the Kansas Soccer Academy Fury - Coach Francis' 14U girls team, which he says is this city's cream of the soccer crop.
"This is a premier league," Francis said. "Which means we play against Kansas City and Topeka. The girls have to try out, so the teams we're playing against are harder."
In the premier leagues, Francis, who is also Kansas University's women's soccer coach, said the teams are grouped into four separate divisions. The KSA Fury is a brand new team, showing their faces for the first time on the field last fall.
"We were in the lowest division in the fall. We finished first or second, so we've moved up to division 2," said Francis of the Fury, one of the original 10 teams formed by the KSA last year.
With the step up in the rankings, the girls were forced to make sure they stepped up their skills as well. Francis said the difficulty isn't as much a hurdle as it is a blessing in disguise.
"It's nice to play good teams," he said. "We're starting to get used to it."
With the increased difficulty comes the necessity to master new skills. In the younger leagues, players have time to consider each of their moves. But in the premiers, players have to learn how to make rapid-fire decisions.
"You don't have as much time," Francis said. "People shut you down quicker. So we work on making the girls quicker."
So far the girls have risen to the occasion. Francis said they have become more competitive on every level.
Left midfielder Sarah Stuver has been playing soccer since she was little, so it only made sense to continue growing with the sport she loves.
"I played with the Kaw Valley Force," she said. "I also played for the Inferno FC."
All of her former teammates from the Inferno played high school soccer in the spring, so Stuver felt it was time for her to pick up the pace as well. She said the competition in the premier league was a wake-up call.
"It's way more competitive," Stuver said. "You're up against players with a higher skill level than in the park and rec leagues."
All the traveling can be a pain, but the opportunity to compete at a higher level of play makes everything worth it.
"Even though there's a lot of driving, it's worth it," Stuver said. "It's fun. You have more teams to play than if you were on a local team."