BELLAIRE - To say Stefano Paolina is passionate about soccer would be an injustice. He lives it.
Paolina is a 15-year-old Bellaire resident who just completed his freshman academic year, not at St. John's Central in Bellaire, where he attended junior high, but rather online. The honors student did so in order to better facilitate his soccer future, as online education affords him more freedom and flexibility to hone his skills.
"I love soccer so much because it's so free-flowing but still team oriented. Everyone has to do their part for it to be successful," Paolina said. "It is always changing. You never do the same thing twice when you play.
"It's 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. It takes character, patience and unselfishness. And because of that, it applies to all of life. Also, it is the world's game. It's a universal language that everyone around the world knows. It connects me with great people."
The sport has turned Paolina into a world traveler, as he has been invited to take part in an elite soccer showcase in Italy.
Two years ago, he made a soccer junket to England with his Wheeling-based team, spending 10 days in Liverpool.
Paolina's skill has him on the radar of a number of academies offering a full-time dose of academics and soccer.
Such institutions provide a top-notch education and high level soccer training. Many of the academies are under the auspices of Major League Soccer teams. Real Salt Lake oversees an academy in Arizona, one of several options Paolina is pondering for this coming year.
Other possibilities are similar academies in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Columbus.
Performing well at such institutions can produce two major career-enhancing options.
One is the possibility of a college scholarship. Paolina would love to play at a school such as Notre Dame or Georgetown.
The second possibility is that the team operating the soccer-development academy could sign him to a professional contract.
Paolina got his first taste of soccer at age 4 in the Wheeling Area Soccer Association. That led to a travel league.
Barry Christmas is the head coach of the West Liberty University women's soccer team. He coached Paolina during his formative years.
"I have known Stefano for close to eight years. Stefano has always been like a sponge in terms of soaking up soccer knowledge," Christmas said. "He has an internal drive to want to improve and does things others won't do to get better. His passion for the game means he watches high-level soccer from all over the world, and you can see he tries to imitate some of the things he sees, which is great.
"He has many of the tools that make a solid player. I am sure he would continue to develop in a high-level training environment where he would be challenged."
A native of Manchester, England, Christmas was hired as WLU's first women's soccer coach in January 2011. Christmas came to the university following a successful stint at Bethany College.
"Barry is the best coach I have ever had. On and off the field he was, and still is, a great mentor. He showed me how great the game was and why it is so phenomenal," Paolina said. "He always knew when to joke around but also always made sure everyone was giving 100 percent and nothing less. That is why every time I play I give everything because that's the way I was taught. I owe a lot to him. I'm thankful for everything he has shown me."
Paolina has a full plate of soccer activity in the coming months.
"During the summer, I'll be going to a variety of college identification camps. Notre Dame is one. I'll be training daily, sometimes twice. And I'm helping coach at a kids camp at Kiski Prep School in Pennsylvania," Paolina said. "And soon I will have to make a decision about next year as admissions are closing soon."
Paolina's success was aided by a solid foundation on the home front. His parents, Rick and Kristi, were supportive with their son's passion every step of the way.
Much of Paolina's training is Pittsburgh-based, often times having mom or dad make two trips a day to the Steel City. In the last year alone, they have traveled to places such as Rhode Island, Arizona and Italy, to name just a few.
The family is all-in.
"At a very early age, my wife and I realized that Stefano was a very special young athlete. His natural athletic ability certainly helped, but the main things that set him apart from other young men his age were his work ethic, his competitive nature and his passion to strive to always get better," Rick Paolina said. "But what we are most proud of is his attitude both on and off the field, his good sportsmanship and caring nature. He is the kind of young man that will knock you down then reach out and pick you up and tell you good job."
Kristi Paolina echoes those sentiments.
"I have always felt that having a child who knows what his/her passion is must be one of the greatest blessings that could be bestowed upon a parent. Stefano's passion for and commitment to, not just playing soccer, but to being a student of the game, has been evident for a number of years," she said. "Given his level of dedication, I firmly believe that we, as parents, must do everything possible to encourage and support his dream. We are fortunate that Stefano has had a number of extremely positive and passionate coaching and mentoring influences over the years."
Paolina has invested much of his young life into soccer. Now he is poised to start reaping his rewards.