Pelham teen Fryer playing on South African National Team

Pelham teen Fryer has worldly dreams

By Rick Carpiniello • Journal News columnist • April 18, 2010

Caitlin Fryer of Pelham is playing soccer this weekend, which is the norm.  Only this time she’s playing in Nigeria. For the South African U-17 women’s national team.  Oh, did we mention she’s 13?

This is off-the-charts stuff.  "I’ve only heard of one player, from Massachusetts, who was 14 and on the (U.S.) U-17 national team, and she’s a tremendous player," said Steve Davis, the director of coaching for Bronxville-based Patriots FC, one of Fryer’s many teams.  "Apart from that, (Caitlin) is the first I’ve heard of, for 13-year-olds."

Fryer, a seventh-grader at Pelham Middle School, has dual citizenship. She was born in Johannesburg, moved here when she was 7, and has been improving ever since.  Russell Fryer, Caitlin’s dad, had sent video of his daughter’s practices and games to the South African national team coaches, and last summer she was invited to a tryout, where she made the team. Since then, she’s been commuting, 15 hours down, 17 hours back (and 12,500 frequent-flier miles each way); getting her homework a week in advance and doing it on the plane and every evening; practicing two-a-days (before and after the temperature reaches its usual 105 degrees); and going to clinics.

"It was hot," she said about the tryouts. "I was dying from the heat."  This weekend, South Africa plays Nigeria in the first of two qualifiers. They meet again May 1 in Johannesburg. The winner will qualify for the U-17 women’s World Cup in September in Trinidad and Tobago.  Caitlin, a striker, said that is her main goal. Off in the distance is the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, for which she could play for the United States, but more likely would remain on South Africa’s radar.

Russell Fryer is a Flagstaff, Ariz., native who took up rugby and fell in love with it. He made the U.S. national U-25 team, but by 1987, when he was 20 and ready to turn pro, there was no money in that sport ... except in South Africa. So he picked up his life and moved there, and spent two-thirds of his life traveling the globe — Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Hong Kong, France, the United Kingdon, Zimbabwe.  I remember my first paycheck in 1987," he said. "You could put petrol in your motor vehicle, you could buy beers after practice. That was a big thing."

Most of his games were on the road because of apartheid; many nations wouldn’t play South Africa anywhere until 1992. Russell made a good career out of it, though he had two knee operations, five hand operations, and was told after an MRI that he had the neck of a 70-year-old. Last week, he had surgery for a torn biceps he suffered in a pickup game, at age 44.  But in Johannesburg, he met an Olympic-class swimmer who became his wife. He and Candice had three daughters: Caitlin, a younger sister Erin, who plays tennis and is a soccer goalie; and a 2-year-old, Hope, who is just starting to kick around a ball. The family still has a house and pets in Johannesburg, and Russell travels with Caitlin, who attended a training camp there a few weeks ago and could make five or six trips before the World Cup if South Africa qualifies.

"I like the travel," she said.

"Its amazing.  I can’t believe I made it.  I’m happy I did because my coach, Steve, and my teammates really helped me achieve my goal.  I really wanted to make it.  It means everything to me.  It’s really cool.

On her U-13 Patriots team, Caitlin is big. She’s 5-foot-5 and about 135 pounds, and Davis matches her up against the opponents’ biggest player. On the South African national team, it’s a little different.  "They’re much better," she said. "They’re faster. I wish I could be like them. Hopefully I will.  "Some of them are my height, but they’re buff. They’re much stronger than me."

Not for long, though.

"She’s got great size, great speed, great mobility; (her) technical side of the game is improving," Davis said. "Her father said he thinks that’s what’s helped her go to South Africa and make the team.  "Tactically, that’s something, we’re talking about positioning on the field — where, when. She’s still 13. Working with us and working with the South African team and working with the Olympic Developmental Program team in (upstate) New York, she’s being coached by three different sets of coaching groups, which I think is only going to help her."

Every day, some days for only an hour, some days for several, Caitlin is working out and playing soccer, while maintaining honors grades in school. On Mondays, she makes the hour-and-a-half ride to join the ODP team. She plays for the Westchester Select team. And for Patriots FC.

"She works hard," her father said. "She’s got God-given talents, and she utilizes them in the right manner.

"I’m hoping soccer’s fun, and traveling the world seeing places that most people don’t see. Soccer’s a full-time career. A lot of these girls are dedicated. She’s grown up to be a normal 13-year-old so far. We try to keep the PlayStations and the Wiis and PSPs away from her. But as long as her schoolwork stays up and her soccer stays at a high caliber, I’ll be happy."

Caitlin giggles and laughs a lot. "She’s just your typical 13-year-old," Davis said. "Constantly smiling, constantly wondering, a big sponge: She just wants to soak everything in. I think sometimes she wants to soak too much in. It’s like five things at once, and then she’s wondering why she didn’t get No. 4."  "My friends, we can go to the movies sometimes and go to the mall," she said. "But usually it’s soccer. I don’t mind. I like it."

Davis is a native of London, where he played for Fulham, a team that is now in the English Premier League but was in the second division when he was there as a teen. He never got a pro contract, but there he met his wife, Annie, who was from Irvington. They were going back-and-forth on where they would live (she wanted to move there; he wanted to move here). When he discovered he could play for the New York Fever, based out of Westchester Community College, the choice was made.

He’s been with the Patriots for 11 years and watched the club grow from one team to 15. He also works with the regional (Maine to Virginia) ODP on the boys side and for two national organizations that educate soccer coaches, and he scouts for the Football Association of Ireland’s national team.

He has had three players go pro — Rye’s Alex Singer and Greer Barnes, and Croton’s Kim Boulos — and he thinks he has four or five players on the Patriots U-13 team, including Fryer, who will play at the highest levels and make the national teams.

The U-13 Patriots, since he took over last year, won four or five major tournaments, including the prestigious Orange Classic in Florida; and were semifinalists at big-time events such as the Jefferson Cup in Virginia (where they lost on penalty kicks) and the Washington Area Girls Soccer Tournament.

Yet, on that team, you can’t help but notice Fryer.

"She stands out because of her size and the natural raw ability she has," Davis said. "Very mobile."

Mobile, he meant, on the soccer pitch. Not commuting between hemispheres.