UNITY – There were no smiles on the sidelines as the Unity College men’s soccer team players came off the field after a 2-0 loss on a dark, rainy Saturday afternoon. Some pulled their shirts over their faces in frustration, others shook their heads.
Among the players was Matty Zane, who waited while his father, 21-year Unity coach Gary Zane, and mother Nancy Zane chatted with visitors to the northern Waldo County campus.
“Can’t we just go home, Mom?” Matty Zane asked when Nancy Zane called for him to come over to her.
Nancy Zane smiled. Matty Zane might be a starting center midfielder for the Rams, but he’s still just 16 years old. And after the tough loss, most 16-year-olds just want to go home.
Not only is Zane, a Freedom resident and longtime home-schooled student, playing for a college soccer team, he also is taking 15 credits at Unity this fall. That was enough to consider him a full-time student at the school.
That meant he could not play on the boys soccer team at Mount View High School in nearby Thorndike, which Zane had done last fall and planned to do again this year. Eligibility rules set by the Maine Principals’ Association, which governs high school sports, state that college students cannot play on high school teams.
Instead, Zane joined the Unity College men’s team, making him by far the youngest player on the squad and at times more than 10 years younger than other players on the field.
Although Matty Zane said he has accepted the way things have turned out, he still believes he should have been allowed to play for the high school team.
“On the MPA’s Web site they state that if it’s a hardship on the kid, they’ll grant him a waiver,” said Zane, a soft-spoken youngster who gained his lean, tanned frame from hours of playing soccer and rock climbing.
“I feel like they’re not letting me play because I’m too smart,” he said.
In fact, Zane’s story may have as much to do with his determination and independent nature as his intelligence.
Zane’s mother started teaching him at home when he was of school age – she jokingly calls him her kindergarten dropout – because she said he didn’t like the hubbub of all the children around him. By the time he got to eighth grade, she knew Matty’s math skills were starting to surpass what she could teach him.
“He’s always been an independent learner,” said Nancy Zane, who works as the part-time manager of Unity’s climbing wall facility. “He was the one who would get me going. [In the mornings] I’m having my coffee and he was like, let’s do algebra.”
Nancy Zane also home-schooled Matty’s older brother Cody, who wound up at Mount View High School and is now a senior at North Yarmouth Academy.
Matty Zane signed up for math and writing classes at Unity as an eighth-grader and took more college classes in his high school freshman year, including a writing class through which he had an article published in a weekly newspaper. The Unity classes are free to the family because of his father’s positions as coach and dean for student affairs.
Matty Zane also took two classes, geometry and biology, at Mount View last year.
“It was awful. It was a big waste of time for me,” he said of his high school experience. “I wasn’t being challenged and there wasn’t a whole lot there that they were offering me. I just really wasn’t into the whole scene there.”
This summer, when Nancy Zane went to Unity to sign up Matty for classes, she said, the school informed her that in order for him to continue there, he would have to enroll as a full-time student. Unity considers any student taking 12 to 16 credits a semester to be full-time, according to the registrar’s office.
Unity does not require a student to have graduated from high school nor does it require a student to submit standardized test scores such as those from the SAT or ACT, according to the admissions application for home-schooled students on its Web site.
The college’s requirements include a portfolio of the student’s work and a personal essay.
As soon as Matty Zane enrolled as a full-time Unity student, he ceased to be considered a high school student, according to Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, which governs high school sports in the state. That’s the reason Zane cannot play for Mount View, said Durost.
“MPA rules now, and for as long as I’ve known – and I’ve been around it 35 years – is that high school graduates are no longer eligible to participate in sports,” Durost said. “If you become a college student, you’re no longer a high school student. We pretty much have to adhere to that.”
That left Zane with a lot of regret and sadness when he had to face Mount View soccer coach Chris Hink during the preseason with the news he wouldn’t be able to play.
It wasn’t only that Zane wasn’t going to play for the Mustangs, but Cody Zane, who also played for Hink last year, had transferred. The brothers were expected to be among Mount View’s top players this year.
“[Hink] expected a lot from me, and when I went to tell him I had to leave the team, it was pretty hard,” Zane said. “There were a lot of tears, from both of us.”
But Zane wouldn’t be giving up soccer. He still had the Unity team, and it didn’t take him long to acclimate. After all, he’d been going to practices, watching games and traveling on road trips with his father’s team since he was a boy.
After Matty found out he’d be a full-time student, Gary Zane sent him a seriously worded recruiting letter through the mail, meant as a joke.
“As soon as he found out I was not going to be able to play high school soccer, he was happy as a clam,” Matty Zane said. “He was pumped.”
Zane’s familiarity with his father’s program – and the fact that he’s one of eight freshmen starting – has helped him overcome the age difference to a point.
“I almost don’t feel like one of those starting freshmen just because I’ve been here forever,” he said. “Sometimes they give me grief about being 16, but in a joking way.”
He said he tried out for his father, just like everybody else, and with just three returning players, most of the starting spots were wide open.
Like his teammates, opposing players who knew about the youngster have joked about Zane’s youth. In one game this season, a player on another team said he didn’t care if Zane was 16 – he would “break him” and then take him out for a beer.
Most of the opposition is older. Gary Zane said some of the players on the team from Hesser College, which has five campuses in New Hampshire, were more than 10 years older than Matty.
Gary Zane said his son’s experience in Maine’s premier travel soccer system made all the difference. Matty has been playing for the southern Maine-based Coastal Soccer Club team since he was 12, and both Matty and Gary Zane said the competition and skills at that level are greater than the level at which the Unity men play.
Zane, who turned 16 only last month, was clearly one of the more skilled players on the field in the loss Saturday to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. He ran well with the ball, passed to his teammates and created space for himself to receive passes.
Still, Zane is young. He’s strong, but he also has just 145 pounds on a 6-foot frame he’s still getting used to.
His father feels comfortable with the younger, smaller player on the field.
“He can compete and his skill level is very high. If there’s one thing, he’s grown a lot so he’s kind of in the Bambi stage of maturity,” Gary Zane said of his long-legged son. “His speed, I’m sure, will increase in a couple years, but because he’s sprouted 3-4 inches over the past year, his quickness and speed hasn’t caught up to him.”
Matty Zane got knocked around at times Saturday but made his share of physical plays, too. In one sequence in the second half, he was whistled for a foul, but a few minutes later drew a foul and a yellow card on the opposition.
During the game Unity students cheered for Zane from the sidelines, and his teammates gave him encouragement after he made good plays. They weren’t afraid to offer constructive criticism, too.
“C’mon, Matty, play smart,” a teammate called out after Zane committed an earlier foul.
As it is for other students who gravitate to Unity for its emphasis on environmental and outdoor studies, soccer is just a piece of Zane’s studies.
Zane is taking classes in physical geology, biology, computers, a required freshman seminar called Unity Experience and white-water canoeing, which he threw in just for fun.
He has received all A’s in his previous classes, he said.
“It’s kind of my mind-set to keep that up,” Zane said. “It’s a lot of reading, and I stay up pretty late most nights. I don’t have a problem with it.”
Had Zane chosen to take fewer than 12 credits and remain a part-time student at Unity, there were options open that would have allowed him to play soccer for Mount View.
Durost said the MPA suggested to the Zane family and Mount View officials that Matty Zane enroll as a student at the high school and work out a schedule that would allow him to take classes at Unity that would count toward completion of his high school requirements.
He also could have remained a home-schooled student and taken a few classes at Unity.
“We tried to work with the school to have a legitimate way for everybody to hopefully have their needs satisfied,” Durost said. “That was one of the suggestions we made that would have been perfectly allowed in policy.”
The MPA places no limitations on the number of college courses a high school student can take, Durost said, and the student can participate in extracurricular activities such as athletics as long as he is enrolled in high school or is home-schooled.
Nancy Zane, who said she spoke with Durost herself during the deliberations, still wonders why the family couldn’t have a hearing in front of the MPA to get Matty an eligibility waiver.
“When I read the piece [on the MPA Web site] about the hearing, I thought, OK, we’ll just go through this process,” she said. “And part of my problem was that they weren’t following the process. I think, if you have a process, you follow the process.”
Durost said the association grants that type of hearing only after a request through the high school principal, but he said he does not recall receiving an official request from Mount View.
Although the MPA does not post its complete eligibility requirements on its Web site, the site does state high school principals must submit a written application to the Committee on Eligibility by Aug. 1 preceding the school year in order to request a waiver for the first semester of the school year.
Mount View principal Lynda Letteney said she was in contact with Durost in July and sent an e-mail to the MPA saying the school would support the Zanes if they wanted to pursue an appeal.
The association’s response was that there was no basis for an appeal because Matty Zane already had matriculated at Unity and was therefore neither a student attending Mount View nor a home-schooled high school student.
“Like anything, even in a court of law, you’ve got to have a basis for the appeal and the MPA ruled there was no basis for the appeal. …” Letteney said. “I was very sympathetic to their plight. As a parent you want to do what you feel is right for your child. But at some point you make a decision for academics. That’s the family’s choice.”
Aside from missing out on soccer, Zane isn’t bothered by his decision to give up his designation as a high schooler. He still keeps in touch with friends at Mount View, but he’s perfectly willing to forgo the prom or yearbooks or a senior trip.
He has bigger things on his mind, anyway. Zane’s current plan is to attend Unity for the next two years and then head west to continue college where he would study geology.
“I really don’t care,” Zane said, a smile returning to his face a few minutes after the loss. “That stuff isn’t anything that I’m like, wow, I wish I had that. I’m fine here and enjoying it so far.”