A young coach steals the thunder

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME By jonathan Littman Avon Books 304 p.p., $ 23

Many girls' sports teams have traditionally relied on dads to coach them. The Eclipse soccer squad of Santa Rosa, Calif., was such a team until last year.

The Eclipse - now renamed Thunder - has a woman as head coach. Instead of a mom, a just-graduated college athlete was chosen as part of a new strategy of tapping former college players, rather than parents, to guide the club.

While that sounds logical, the decision led to many anxious and sometimes tense moments for players, parents, and the new young mentor, Emiria Salzmann, an All-American who starred at Sonoma State University in Sonoma, Calif.

Thunder's story of trial and considerable triumph - which began in the Northern California State Championship - is told in "The Beautiful Game: Sixteen Girls and the Soccer Season That Changed Everything."

Author Jonathan Littman, a former college soccer player himself, was perhaps getting a sneak preview of the environment in which his two young daughters might someday play.

The Thunder team is for 13- and 14-year-olds - a transitional time for young girls whose self-images can be defined, for better or for worse, through their experiences in sports.

Playing on a club team, especially a high-level one, is far more consuming than playing on school teams with limited seasons. It's an ongoing commitment that demands that girls and their families make tough choices and sacrifices, partly in hopes of future high school and college stardom.

A relentless taskmaster, Salzmann faced more than a few doubts about her regime, which minimized the parents' influence at the same time it pushed the girls physically and mentally beyond the point they'd previously reached.

Despite her playing credentials, Ms. Salzmann had no experience as coach, making it hard for parents to accept some of her tough-minded ways and desire to be paid nearly $10,000 in salary and expenses. Still, parents supported her learn-as-you-go adventure and the girls gradually were won over.

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