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St. Helens senior midfielder-to-be received tryout invitation from coach Gaff Leyland

PHOTO CREDIT: SIMON DATE - Lions midfielder Sophia Estep, left, will forego her senior soccer season as a new member of the Portland Thorns Academy. At right is Portland Timbers and Portland Thorns owner, Merritt Paulson.

Sophia Estep will, without fail, celebrate the Lions as a spectator as she begins her shot at her Portland Thorns goal this fall.

The senior midfielder-to-be received a tryout invitation for the Thorns FC Academy, which prides itself on "increasing the training-to-game ratio, playing fewer but more meaningful games and having coaches with the highest licenses," per the US Soccer Girls Development Academy, from then-La Salle Prep coach Gaff Leyland in St. Helens' home finale against the Class 5A champion Falcons last October, and made the 23-to-25-player contingent after a few practices.

"I would love to play professionally for the Thorns," said Estep, who played for US Youth Soccer's Olympic Development Program as a junior and, per the Lions' Northwest Oregon Conference Coach of the Year Simon Date, scored 13 goals -- including three game-winners -- with six assists in 14 starts and became the first St. Helens girl to receive a Northwest Oregon Player of the Year vote.

"Up until about a year ago, she didn't realize how good she was," said Date, who also works in marketing for the Oregon Youth Soccer Association in Beaverton. "I feel like she's done well: At 13 and 14 years old [before the Thorns' Academy existed], there was something different and something special about her speed and skills. She's no prima donna: She helped with the five-to-nine academy and with [US Youth Soccer's Top Soccer camps for athletes with special needs] last summer."

Date said the Thorns pick up the cost of trainers, gear, travel and sports psychology, and that Estep wants to study to be a veterinarian as a backup plan to soccer.

Academy talents are welcome to Thorns season tickets, the Thorns host Academy Appreciation Day on a given day, and talents like Estep can make extra money working Thorns and Timbers summer camps, per portlandthornsfc.com.

"I noticed a difference in her dedication," Date said. "That's what it takes to play at the top level, not, 'I don't want to go to bed at 10 p.m., I want to stay up 'til 2 a.m. on Snapchat,' or, 'I don't want to watch what I eat, I want to eat Taco Bell.'"

Estep got to see Providence Park's pitch in person during Timbers player introductions prior to their 2-0 defeat of the San Jose Earthquake on June 2, and heard the deafening noise from the Timbers Army and met owner Merritt Paulson.

The Thorns, born of Paulson in 2012, joined the nascent National Women's Soccer League in 2013 and upset reigning Women's Professional Soccer champion Western New York Flash (Elma, N.Y.) for the crown.

Thorns coach Mark Parsons of Cranleigh, Surrey, England, is the reigning National Women's Soccer League Coach of the Year in his second year with the team.

Portland (6-4-4, 22 points this season and 45-25-30 all-time) is scheduled to host the Washington Spirit (3-3-7) at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

"I have noticed a complete difference between who I was as a player before I started playing with the academy and now," Estep said. "I want to continue to develop and see that change within myself, and hopefully that will open doors to the collegiate level and the actual Thorns team. I really appreciate Simon helping me make these connections and always being my biggest -- and loudest -- fan."

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