Co-Athletes of the Week: Gazzani, Zimmer hit goals

For the first time in Mammy’s Kitchen Athlete of the Week voting history, we have a tie. But what do you expect in a race between two soccer standouts – a sport known for draws? Just not by the score of 3,883-all.

That was the final vote tallies for Carolina Forest senior Erica Gazzani and St. James sophomore Keaton Zimmer, whose unique backgrounds in soccer show just how far the sport has come on the Grand Strand in recent years.

Gazzani transferred to Carolina Forest as a seventh-grader from New York, where she grew up playing in advanced developmental leagues. She joined Coast FA and played two years up in age to get a higher level of training, and after her elder teammates moved on Gazzani and her parents traveled twice a week to Mount Pleasant for practices.

“I started playing soccer when I was 4 and I’ve always loved it,” Gazzani said. “It was a tough transition moving here. Soccer isn’t as big here as it was in New York so I had to travel a lot to find the level of competition I was used to playing against, but it was a good experience and I made a lot of friends from all over the state.”

Zimmer, on the other hand, grew up on the Grand Strand and also started playing at the age of 4. In the seventh grade, he have up baseball to concentrate solely on soccer, joining the Coast FA 96 Premiere team and competing in tournaments throughout the Southeast. He and many of his club teammates are now up-and-comers for the Sharks.

“I remember I started playing on a field behind the middle school before there was Coast FA,” Zimmer recalled. “A lot of the guys that are on the high school team now started playing Coast FA a few years later. We’ve been playing together for a long time, probably eight or nine years now, and it’s starting to pay off in high school.”

During Gazzani and Zimmer’s short careers, the Grand Strand has undergone a serious transformation in the sport of soccer. A decade ago there were only small recreation leagues spread out through the Strand and a small club squad that had a difficult time competing against state soccer hubs like Charleston, Columbia and Greenville.

Now Coast FA has consolidated many of the smaller rec leagues and become a force in regional club tournaments, as has Beach United FC and its association with the Grand Strand YMCA rec leagues. The result has been a boon for local players looking to take their games to a higher level, and a growing soccer scene in numbers and repuation.

“Our Coast FA team finished second in the State Cup last year and then finished second in the Atlanta Cup, which has all the best teams from around the Southeast,” Zimmer said. “A lot of those same guys are on our high school team and we really have a lot of chemistry. There’s been a big jump in intensity and that’s a big advantage.”

Although Gazzani arrived on the Grand Strand too late to reap the full benefits of a emerging soccer program, her dedication and participation in local and statewide club programs, including the Olympic Developmental Program in Columbia, have resulted in an ability to lead her high school team and a scholarship to Charleston Southern.

“In my four years at Caroline Forest I’ve never had a college coach come watch one of my games, but I’ve played in some club tournaments where there were like 40 college coaches watching,” Gazzani said. “It took a lot of travel and I thank my parents for it because it took a lot of time and money, but it was definitely worth it.”

The vote may have been a tie, but both soccer players are winners. And so is the local soccer community.

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