Whatcom Rangers FC coach Mary Schroeder knows her way around a Baker Blast soccer tournament.
She played in the tournament as a youth soccer player, and she's been a Rangers coach since 2002.
This year is just a little different. Coaching a U12 team this season presents new challenges for the 34-year-old coach.
The Baker Blast is Whatcom County's premier soccer tournament. The three-day event played at Northwest Soccer Park is known throughout Washington State and British Columbia as a quality summer tournament for premier teams to get some training in before regular seasons start.
"I think the most special part is our location," Schroeder said in a phone interview. "The field is such a beautiful spot to play soccer with Mt. Baker right there."
Schroeder coaches Whatcom Rangers U12 Gold team, her first year with this group of players. It's also the players first year with the Whatcom Rangers.
Most of them played in the Rangers Development Program before now and the transition to the premier team can be tough to get used to. Players are often the best on their teams before they get to the Rangers.
"Instead of doing a lot of work themselves, they have to let the ball do the work," Schroeder said. "Some challenges are trying to stay conservative and stay focused on the team's shape. Trying not to get stretched out and not trying to do it all yourself."
The players are also playing on a full field with 11 players a side for the first time. Washington State Youth Soccer plays small-sided games through U11.
With more players and a bigger field defenses can get spread out, especially when playing a "flatback" four - the preferred style of formation by the US Soccer Federation, which suggests coaches teach the most popular style of defense.
The flatback four includes four defenders all holding the same line, rather than having a more diamond shape. With young athletes on a bigger field, the players can often stretch out and open holes for the other team to attack.
That's where Schroeder's coaching comes in.
"They've picked it up well," she said. "We have spent a lot of time working on defensive shape."
Schroeder's team has benefited from two strong center defenders - Paige TeVelde and Ashli McCudden.
With a strong defense, the U12 gold team cruised through the Skagit Firecracker, the team's first competitive tournament, finishing second place to a team from Edmonds named Black Ice after a 2-1 loss Sunday, June 22, in Burlington.
The gold team will look to continue that success at the Baker Blast, but getting wins is not the top priority.
"We're hoping to get better in our formation as a team," Schroeder said. "As you're learning, sometimes you make mistakes."
Just starting out within premier soccer, it's important to get the basics down first. Soccer players must have a base first, Schroeder said, before they can move through the ranks.
With Whatcom Rangers a well-known program in the state, the program has done a good job of establishing its teams early in the system.
"This age is hugely important," Schroeder said. "That's why I'm so excited to be coaching this age."
Regardless of the outcomes, Schroeder's team will have the benefit of playing on home soil. The team practices at Northwest Soccer Park and are comfortable there, Schroeder said.
They will also be able to support other Rangers teams as many of the girls will walk around as field marshals throughout the tournament.
Of course, the priority is the gold team's games, which begin at 2:40 p.m. Friday, June 27. The team faces Surrey United, where Schroeder will look to forward Abigail Arnold, who has been a highlight for the team so far, netting a few goals.
The second game is at 8 p.m. Friday against Coastal FC. The Rangers will then play two games on Saturday and if they are in the top two teams of their bracket of five, they will play in the championship at 3:45 p.m. Sunday.
A total of 170 teams will be competing in the 24th annual Baker Blast this weekend on three fields - Northwest Soccer Park, Ferndale High School and Pioneer Park. Half of the teams this year are from British Columbia.
Reach Joshua Hart by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 360-715-2851.