Lake Norman & Mooresville

Making the national team meant … a puppy!

Vicky Bruce of Cornelius has two passions in her life: playing soccer and getting a puppy.

But her parents figured that never the two shall meet.

It all started a few years ago, when Vicky – now a 14-year-old freshman at Cannon School – asked her parents for a puppy.

Her mom, Maryann, who has pet allergies, wasn't crazy about the idea, so she and her husband came up with a way out of it: a deal with Vicky: Make a U.S. Soccer national team, and you can have a puppy.

“We figured there would be no way she'd be able to do that,” Ron Bruce, Vicky's father, said. “We knew how hard that would be, and we didn't even think there was a national team until you became 18 years old.”

But Vicky isn't an average girl, especially on the soccer field. She's been one of the best players on the field since she first put on shin guards at age 5. She's tall and athletic, and Vicky could outmaneuver other girls with the ball.

“When she played with girls, she just dominated,” Ron Bruce said. “We wanted to find the best competition for her.”

So her coaches had an idea. They moved Vicky into a boys' league at age 9, and she continued to excel. Vicky said it didn't seem much different, except that the game moved faster.

Training from her personal coach, Eric Ozimek, helped. Eric Stilley, her coach with the Charlotte Soccer Club who has seen her play for at least five years, said Vicky had the mindset to succeed.

“Vicky is very gifted,” Stilley said. “She has the quickness and agility to adapt, and she's not going to back down from anybody.”

Last year, Vicky moved back to the Charlotte Soccer Club girls' team. Her versatility through the years helped her shine – she's played goalie, forward, midfield and defender – and it also helped enhance her chances of playing for elite teams.

She still talked about getting a puppy – every Christmas, her parents knew what would be No.1 on her wish list – but the odds of making a national team are slight. More than 200 of the top soccer players in North Carolina try out for the state team each year, and more than 10,000 compete nationally for the two traveling national teams for each age group.

The process for all of that started in December. Vicky made the N.C. team earlier this spring, then went to Alabama for a regional camp. She qualified for the regional team, but still had to beat out dozens of other girls from across the country in a tryout camp in California to make the national team.

Three days of cuts ensued before the final 36 players were determined. Then at 3 a.m. in the last week of July, Ron and Maryann Bruce got the call they never thought they'd hear.

“‘I get a puppy! I get a puppy!' That's all she said,” Ron Bruce said. “She didn't mention the team, but we knew what had happened.”

She was the only girl from North Carolina to make the team.

“It just shows what hard work can do,” Ron Bruce said. “Vicky just showed that you really can't stop her.”

A week later, Vicky picked out a cocker spaniel and poodle mixed breed and named him Cooper. She played with the national 14-under team last weekend as a defender in a tournament in California and is now home with her new friend.

“It feels great,” she said. “When I am looking at Cooper every day, I know that I can really do something if I work at it. I know I can really reach a goal.”

Kevin Cary: 704-987-3670, ext. 33