The ball came in from the wing, and Claire Hutton took to the air to meet it.
Freeing herself from defenders in the area, the 5-foot-6 Hutton headed the ball goalward, where it glanced off the underside of the crossbar, over the goal line and into the net to give her Bethlehem team an early lead last Saturday against Ballston Spa.
For Hutton, it was just another goal, her 62nd since making her Bethlehem varsity soccer debut as a seventh grader in 2018. But, while the first 59 of them were scored while starring for Bethlehem’s girls’ team, this year the junior standout is playing on the school’s varsity boys’ team.
“She’s a once-in-a-generation player,” said Bethlehem girls’ soccer coach Tom Rogan, who coached Hutton for her first four seasons of varsity soccer.
Hutton’s soccer credentials are unimpeachable. She was the state’s Class AA girls’ soccer player of the year as an eighth grader in 2019, recently committed to the University of North Carolina to play women’s soccer and represented the United States this past spring at the CONCACAF Under-17 Championships.
This season, instead of returning to a girls’ team where she’d won a pair of Section II championships, Hutton tried out for, made and is a starter for a boys’ team in the Suburban Council, one of New York’s most competitive high school soccer leagues.
“The speed of play, the competitiveness, the physicality, it’s all great,” Hutton said. “I’m just improving my game. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
“To be able to play with the boys, and for them to let me play with them, it’s just amazing.”
A girl playing on a boys’ team is far from unheard of, but typically happens either in situations where a school does not offer a girls’ version of a sport or there is not a girls’ equivalent, such as football.
Hutton’s case — a girl competing on a boys’ team despite her school having the corresponding girls’ sport — is far rarer.
According to Section II Executive Director Ed Dopp, a New York State Education Department Commissioner’s Regulation permits situations where, in a school where teams are offered for both genders in the sport, the superintendent or chief school officer can grant approval for a girl to participate on a boys’ team.
Following that approval, the school puts together a panel to review the athlete’s readiness and maturity to play at that level, and the information is reviewed, then approved or denied by Section II’s Mixed Competition Committee.
“In this case,” Dopp wrote in an email to The Daily Gazette, “it was clearly approved.”
A GENERATIONAL TALENT
Hutton first hit Rogan’s radar when she was in sixth grade and already playing against high schoolers in club settings.
“She was the best player on the field,” Rogan said.
Hutton has long exceeded the typical expectations for a player her age. She debuted on the Bethlehem varsity as a seventh grader, putting up 11 goals and nine assists as the Eagles won the Section II Class AA championship. Things were even better in her eighth-grade season, when she produced a school-record 36 goals, 19 assists, another Section II title, and honors as a Regional All-American and state player of the year.
Over her freshman and sophomore seasons, she played in only eight total games for Bethlehem due to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic moving Bethlehem’s fall 2020 season to spring 2021, club commitments and a hiatus she took from the program last fall as she tried out for the U.S. national team. In that limited action, she still put up 12 goals and nine assists.
With Hutton in the lineup, Bethlehem’s record against Section II opponents was 38-1-1.
And yet, with all that success, as the team held its exit meetings last November, Rogan’s co-head coach Christine Cochrane brought up a bold proposition.
“Christine had seen that there was a rule in New York state that the ‘exceptional player’ can play on the boys’ team, even when there is a girls’ team,” Rogan said. “Claire fits that description perfectly.”
Hutton, at that point, was still largely concerned with her national team ambitions, so the idea went on the back burner for months.
But, after she’d spent the spring representing the United States as the U-17 team’s youngest player at the CONCACAF tournament in the Dominican Republic — she was eventually left off the roster for this month’s FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in India — Hutton came back to the idea during the summer.
“She contacted us again and said, ‘Is that really an option to do?’” Rogan said. “We said that it absolutely is. We reached out to the boys’ coaches and the athletic director, and all of them were incredibly amenable to the situation. It was pretty simple: If you can make the team and play, then she makes the team and plays. They were equally excited about it, and we were thrilled with the response we got from the coaches, the athletic director and the entire school district.”
Bethlehem boys’ coach Phil Ridgway said he was a bit surprised when the proposal came up, but wanted to give Hutton a chance.
How quickly into tryouts did it take Ridgway to decide that Hutton belonged?
“Within the first day,” Ridgway said.
AN EXCEPTIONAL SITUATION
Bryce Colby has been the girls’ varsity coach at Niskayuna since 1995, with a pair of state titles and a spot in the New York State High School Girls’ Soccer Hall of Fame on his resume.
Due to shifting schedules and Hutton’s outside commitments, he last coached against her during her eighth-grade season, but even then, he said she possessed a level of technical skill that surpassed anything he’s seen in Section II.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a kid in 30 years who was that skilled,” Colby said. “She has a way with the ball that I’ve not seen, and she had it in seventh and eighth grade. There really wasn’t a growth curve.”
While Colby can’t recall an instance of a girl playing on a boys’ team instead of her school’s girls’ team during his time in Section II, he acknowledged that if he were to ever make that suggestion to one of his players, they would have to “check a lot of boxes” including their skill level, their current and future soccer trajectory, and if the level of competition could continue to challenge that player.
Hutton, he said, checks pretty much all of them.
“High school soccer isn’t going to help her advance,” Colby said. “It’s going to be through the clubs and national team programs, in which case, what do we have available here while she’s at school and being a student that will help her? Boys’ teams.”
While the NYSED Mixed Competition rule allows for girls’ to compete on boys’ teams when a school offers the same sport for both, it does not allow for a boy to compete on a girls’ team in a similar scenario.
With Hutton trying out for and earning her place — and starter’s minutes — on the boys’ team, both Rogan and Colby acknowledged that there would be a boy who lost out on playing time, though both cited the rarity of the circumstances.
“It’s a public high school, and we’re about education and opportunity,” Colby said. “I think there’s an argument to be made for that. You’ve got to look at the specifics in that program.”
“I’m not sure about the inner workings of the boys’ team, but you know, she’s starting and probably someone else might have thought they would have been starting there,” Rogan said. “But, that’s always the lesson. The best players get to play. We say it to the kids all the time.”
Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, declined to comment on that potential scenario, deferring to NYSED, but said that Hutton’s presence on the boys’ team is in the exact spirit of the NYSED regulation.
“That’s the reason the regulation’s written in the manner that it is,” Zayas said. “If you do have a young lady that has exceptional talent, and is interested in playing for the boys’ team, she would be given the opportunity to do that.”
NYSED officials declined to comment on the scenario, citing the potential of needing to rule on a potential appeal of Mixed Competition issues.
FITTING RIGHT IN
As for Hutton’s feelings on the matter? Her season with the Bethlehem boys has been a blast, and her new teammates have embraced her as one of their own.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “I’ve got 24 new brothers. They treat me like a sister, and it’s so fun. I wouldn’t rather do anything else.”
And Ridgway can now be counted among the many, many coaches to be blown away by Hutton’s skill set.
“The ball control she has, and the vision, are just wonderful,” Ridgway said.
Rogan also said that from a player-safety perspective, he views it to be safer for Hutton to be playing on the boys’ team.
According to Rogan, in her seasons of girls’ varsity soccer, Hutton was fouled an average of 10 times per game. That number has decreased as a member of the boys’ team, and with that decrease comes less of a chance of incurring a contact-based injury.
“She definitely had a target on her back and was fouled multiple times during the game [on the girls’ team],” Rogan said. “It’s probably the girls’ game, with the amount of time that she’s fouled, that’s probably the unsafe place for her to be.”
There are differences, of course, and Hutton’s more than happy to recount them.
The speed of play is definitely faster, she said, and the boys’ game certainly comes with a different kind of physicality.
But, embracing those challenges is exactly why Hutton — who’s got dreams of college national championships and future spots on the senior U.S. national team — took this leap.
And, every day, she’s learning.
“It kind of takes being a little bit smarter to play with them,” said Hutton, who volleyed in a corner kick Thursday against Colonie for yet another goal. “Game after game, I think I keep getting smarter and improving, and I’m happy to be able to help the team.”
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Ridiculous, she is a girl, and there is a girl’s team, why is she on the boy’s team? Stop this insanity!