By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Always impressed during a dozen college visits, All-Empire soccer player Jackie Dutton’s choice was difficult but definitive.
Dutton sought a successful major women’s program at a school not too big and in a fun city. The University of Denver made the first and greatest impression with Dutton formally accepting an athletic scholarship Wednesday.
“Denver fit everything I wanted. And I really like the way they coach,” the Cardinal Newman senior said. “It was a hard choice. But I’ve never thought twice about it.”
See photos from National Signing Day here
Decision time came for more than two dozen Empire athletes who signed their national letter of intent. Wednesday opened the signing period for scholarship commitments in a handful of sports to NCAA Division I and Division II colleges and universities. Others formally accepted scholarships during early periods.
The day was marked by several signing events. Largest was the Santa Rosa United soccer club gathering with a virtual starting lineup of high school senior girls inking names to national letters.
After years of tournaments and college showcases consuming budgets and much of the calendar, these players are finishing a final season together before scattering to continue competing at four-year college programs.
Many began thinking about playing in college while watching the club’s senior members move into the college ranks. Dutton’s dream began as an 11-year-old.
“It’s a lot of commitment. But I don’t really look at it as work,” she said. “Soccer is something I love to do.”
Following the lead of older sister Avery into soccer, Dutton took up the sport as a 4-year-old in Shrewsbury, Mass., west of Boston. The family moved to Windsor when Dutton was 9 and she joined Santa Rosa United.
Athletic and skilled, Dutton developed into a strong midfielder. The position demands one to be a catalyst on both ends of the field.
“I’m supposed to be the player who makes things happen,” Dutton said.
College coaches started to take notice at showcases. By her sophomore season at Cardinal Newman, she was making campus visits, including Denver.
Other stops that helped Dutton narrow her choices were at UC Santa Barbara, Boston University and Pacific.
“I’m going around to all these great campuses and the coaches are kind of trying to impress you,” she said.
As a junior Dutton watched Denver play in an NCAA tournament regional at which the Pioneers upset Maryland before falling to host Stanford. Denver returned to the tournament last season.
“That would be so much fun playing in the tournament,” Dutton said. “That’s what I like. I like to compete.”
A three-time All-Empire selection, Dutton helped lead Cardinal Newman to a strong finish her senior season. Cardinal Newman won two North Coast Section playoff contests before falling in the semifinals.
“It was kind of a rebuilding year. We weren’t supposed to go that far. It was really nice,” she said.
As captain of both her high school and club teams, Dutton has become more of a leader, another plus in her move to the college game.
Deciding on Denver included a competitive scholarship offer that could improve depending on her play. Annual tuition, room and board is $56,000 for a typical Denver undergraduate.
“The financial factor was huge,” she said.
Plenty of hard work is ahead for Dutton to gain playing time on such a perennially strong squad. She plays defensive center midfielder and figures to compete with another first-year player at the position.
Soon she will take up the strength and conditioning regimen provided by Denver’s coaches.
Play with Santa Rosa United runs through April. Then she will train with a top Santa Rosa United boys team, demanding the skill and speed Dutton will need in the college game.
“You either improve with the rest of them or you don’t play,” Dutton said. “It’s a little bit scary. But I’m excited.”
Michael Coit can be reached at Mike.Coit@PressDemocrat.com.