Grizzlies hit the road - in Europe

Lyland Villagomez calls it a once in a lifetime opportunity, and for most of his teammates he's probably right.

Nine Ashland High boys soccer players and six more from Klamath Falls embark tonight on an 11-day road trip to end all road trips, one that will take them from the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial in Germany, to the top of the Alps in Switzerland, from the Milan Cathedral in Italy to the Santa Maria Delle Grazie, where they will view Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper."

Yes, there will be time for soccer, too. The Grizzlies/Pelicans will play four games, two against U-17 teams and two against U-18 teams. They know there's a good chance they will be schooled, and for the first time since they were in kindergarten they are absolutely fine with that.

"I expect good competition," said Villagomez, one of the Klamath Falls players who learned of the trip last fall and has been looking forward to it ever since. "They live for soccer, pretty much. I know it'll make us better."

They'll watch two soccer matches, too, but matches unlike any they've ever seen &

first, a game Saturday pitting Bayern Munich, one of the best teams in the world, against Bayer Leverkusen at Alliance Arena in Munich. Then, on March 30, they'll take in an Italian Series A game between AC Milan, one of the most storied soccer clubs in the world, and Atalanta. The match will be played in the country's largest stadium, the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, which can hold 82,955 fans.

"You see movies about the Green Street Hooligans and stuff like that," said Ashland junior Kai Cadarette-Stewart, referring to the group of soccer thugs immortalized on film in a movie starring Elijah Wood. "But I think it's going to be fun and I can't wait to see what the culture's going to be like there involved around soccer."

The tour is the brainchild of Ashland U-17 coach and local builder Brad Roupp, one of four coaches who will accompany the team. Roupp, the father of Ashland junior Nate Roupp and former Ashland High basketball all-star Jamie Roupp, says he's always wanted to organize a big trip for the team &

the Ashland players have played together since grade school. That dream started to take shape last fall as Roupp took his own tour through Europe. While there, he took pictures, made contacts with local hotels and soccer federations and basically mapped out the whole thing. He returned to Ashland with an itinerary, and when he approached the players and their parents, it wasn't a hard sell.

"I was kind of surprised," Villagomez said. "My coach came up to me and asked me if I wanted to go to Europe. At first I was like, 'What?' And then I was like, 'Of course.'"

The trip won't be cheap. The average cost per player is about $1,500, but Roupp is confident that the experience will be well worth it.

"I think some of them will come back and say they want to go back and try to play," he said. "I think their understanding of the world and how soccer fits will really be strengthened."

The journey begins in just a few hours, when the team is scheduled to depart from Rogue Valley International Airport, and ends with the flight back on March 31. In between, the schedule is jam packed.

They will arrive in Munich on Friday and will spend the day checking out the old town. They'll visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial on Saturday, watch the Bayern Munich game that night and play the FC Munich U-17 team Sunday.

On Monday, it's off to Lucerne, Switzerland, where the boys will take a cog train to the top of the Alps before returning for a 4 p.m. match against the FC Luzern U-18 team. They'll visit a castle there on Wednesday and play another team that night before taking a train to Bordighera, Italy on Thursday to see the Italian Riviera.

While the trip is packed full of destinations, Roupp also set aside some time to unwind &

both on the beach and at local discos.

"I'm looking forward to it &

cruising around the town with my friends and stuff like that," Cadarette-Stewart said. "It's going to be great."

It'll be inspiring, too, adds Roupp, since the players will be spending most of their time around soccer fans who know as much or more about the sport than most coaches in the U.S. He got a taste of that passion while watching an Italian Series A game during his own tour. One sequence in particular wowed Roupp &

a right fullback made a spectacular run that didn't lead to a goal, but inspired 50,000 fans to rise as one. This acknowledgment, Roupp says, was something to behold, and he can't wait for the Grizzlies and Pelicans to see it for themselves.

"That's what soccer is &

people making plays," he said. "In Europe, the culture revolves around soccer, and it's a wonderful thing to be a part of."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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