WALLA WALLA - The best coaches go the extra mile to get players ready for a new season.
In her case, Heather Cato is going about 4,700 extra miles (one way) to get her Whitman College women's soccer team ready for its fall campaign.
Cato, on the cusp of her second coaching season at Whitman, takes flight later this week for England with 19 of her returning players in tow. The Missionary contingent arrives in London on Saturday and plays its first game against the Yeovil Town Reserves on Monday.
Assisted by her parents, Tina and Jim Trickey, and men's soccer coach Mike Washington, Cato & Company will play a total of eight games before returning to the states on Aug. 12.
"This is an exciting time for Whitman women's soccer," Cato said. "Nearly all of our team from a year ago is returning. Everyone took their training to an entirely new level last spring and this summer, partly because they want to be ready for this trip."
While Cato takes a back seat to few people when it comes to soccer passion and competitiveness, learning will nudge winning to the back burner while her team is in England.
"I'm not worried as much about the results in England as long as the trip helps us come back and do well in the conference," she said. "We want to play a lot of games and learn as much as we can from English teams and players. Their style of play is a bit more physical, and the European players tend to have strong technical skills.
"This trip also gives us the chance to focus on soccer and learn more about each other," she said. "Bonding off the pitch can be just as important as practicing on the field."
While in England, Whitman coaches and players will stay in residence halls at the University of Bath.
Other football clubs on the schedule include Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Havant & Waterlooville, and Cardiff City.
"What's great about England is that it's smaller, geographically, than the state of Washington," Cato said. "We can play games and have workouts in the morning, and then have the rest of the day to see the sights and soak up some English culture and history.
"We also want to go to Weston-super-Mare, where Mike (Washington) is from, for some beach soccer."
No extended soccer field trip to England would be complete, of course, without a pilgrimage to the storied Manchester United Football Club and Old Trafford, a 76,000-seat stadium that is the English sporting equivalent of Yankee Stadium in the United States.
Washington, a native of England who moved to the U.S. in 1981, is starting his 14th season at the helm of the men's soccer program at Whitman. He has taken his teams on British soccer tours three times since 2002.
"Now is a great time for Heather to take her team to England," Washington said. "As a second-year coach, this is one way she can show her players just how committed she is to building a strong program. This kind of trip requires a lot of planning and fundraising, which means Heather has invested a great deal of extra time and energy to make this work for her players.
"There is a lot that young players can learn from Heather," he said. "As one of her coaches in the Olympic Development program, I saw first-hand just how talented and competitive she was as a player."
After graduating from Mountain View High School in Vancouver, Wash., Cato took her skills to the University of Arkansas, where she was a four-year starter. She still ranks among the Razorback career scoring leaders.
"Heather wants to use this trip to get her team playing at a higher level," Washington said. "She wants to spend a lot of time working on certain parts of the game, and she wants me to help with that. She wants her players to focus on soccer for the next few weeks as one of steps toward building a team atmosphere that is very passionate about the game and being successful at it."
The timing of Whitman's trip also is excellent in that it comes in the wake of the Women's World Cup, which saw England fall in the quarterfinals and the U.S. lose in the finals. Both teams lost on penalty kicks.
"Interest in women's soccer, both here in the U.S. and around the world, is very high right now," Washington said.
Women's soccer in England was virtually non-existent when Washington and his wife, Susan, moved to Seattle three decades ago.
"Unfortunately, when I was growing up it was the nature of the English soccer culture that it was very much a man's game," he said.
"Thanks to the start of the Women's World Cup (in 1989), the interest in women's soccer has grown phenomenally everywhere," he said. "In England, most of the major soccer clubs now have a full array of teams for your girls and women."
Unlike recent trips to England with his own team, the next few weeks will give Washington the chance to take a closer look at the level of play among young women in England.
"From what little I've seen, the level of play is quite good," he said. "It's more physical, because of the officiating, but it's still quite good. I was impressed with what I saw a few years ago."
Before leaving for England, Cato and several of her players with gather tonight (Wednesday, July 20) in Seattle to watch the men from Manchester United play the Seattle Sounders at Qwest Field.