---- — By Todd Stanford
For The Daily Item
On Oct. 11, there was a Heartland Athletic Conference reunion in, of all places, Lexington, Ky.
That's where two former Daily Item Girls Soccer Players of the Year met on the collegiate pitch, as Caitlin Landis' Kentucky Wildcats played host to Cheyenne Spade's Tennessee Volunteers.
Landis' Kentucky side pulled out a 4-1 victory, with Landis scoring a goal and pocketing two assists. But this story is about how two women from the Central Susquehanna Valley have come to thrive in one of the top collegiate conferences for women's soccer.
Landis, the all-time leading goal scorer in Milton High School history, is a senior forward for the Wildcats. She's played in every game the past three seasons, and has four goals and four assists this year, putting her fourth on the team in goals, assists and points.
Although Kentucky fell to Ole Miss in the SEC quarterfinals Wednesday, Landis' collegiate career isn't done yet. She found out Monday that the Wildcats (13-6-1) got an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with a first-round home game Friday against Ohio State (10-6-3).
"It is definitely a surreal feeling to be almost done with college soccer," Landis wrote in an e-mail. "I have learned so much and have enjoyed every second at the University of Kentucky. I am so blessed to be able to meet and play with such an amazing, talented group of girls and coaches. I'm going to miss them tremendously."
Spade, a junior for Tennessee who spent the first two years of her career at North Carolina State (she transferred after a coaching change), is likewise keeping her fingers crossed that the Volunteers get an at-large bid Monday. Tennessee (8-7-4) did not qualify for the 12-team SEC tourney, but the Vols have impressive wins this season over Central Florida (currently ranked 17th in the nation by SoccerTimes.com), Texas A&M (22nd) and Ole Miss (25th).
The former Midd-West Mustang has two goals and four assists this season, with two of those assists coming in the team's big win over Central Florida.
"I love it (at Tennessee)," Landis said by phone. "It's a perfect fit for me. I was a little unsure at first. I really liked West Virginia. I wanted to go (play) closer to home. But the coaches here are incredible. It's like family."
Moving from the ACC to the SEC has been an adjustment for Spade. The ACC has long been home to the best women's soccer in the country -- four of the top five teams in the nation right now are from the ACC.
"The ACC is a lot more crafty and the SEC is more physical," she says. "I think our coach (Brian Pensky) -- he came from (the ACC's) Maryland -- he's doing a phenomenal job. He likes to play crafty and pass the ball, keep the ball -- possession style. It works well."
Both Landis and Spade were stars on their high school teams beginning with their freshman years, but they also honed their game by going out of the area to play club soccer. Spade suited up for FC Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, while Landis competed with the Hershey Attack. FC Pennsylvania won a club national title last year, and Landis' club team has competed in national tournaments as well.
That level of competition got both players ready for the collegiate game.
"The biggest adjustment would probably be the speed of play," Landis says. "The competition is very intense and physical, so you need to be quick with your reactions and know exactly what you need to do beforehand. It's so crazy how much film you watch and how much information you get on your opponents. It's amazing how much it helps to get a visual of what you need to do on the field."
After three years competing against Spade on the high school pitch, Landis probably didn't need much of a scouting report on her when they met on Oct. 11. As it turned out, though both started, they didn't come across each other on the field -- Landis was at left forward and Spade was on the other side of the pitch at left midfield.
"It was so weird playing against Cheyenne," Landis says. "It was like going back in time to our rival games in high school. I'm so happy for her that she's playing for Tennessee. Cheyenne played great! Slicing and dicing like I remember in high school. She really fits in well with Tennessee's style and I'm happy that she's out there showing them how it's done in Central Pa.
"It was a great feeling -- both of us from our small hometowns being announced at the beginning of the game together. We hugged and talked after; it was a very special moment for me."
"That's the first time we've ever hugged after a game," Spade adds. "We've grown to respect each other."
After seeing Landis up close for the first time in four years and watching her factor in on three of Kentucky's four goals, Spade was as impressed as ever with her former high school rival.
"She's great," Spade says. "Give her props."
When the NCAA tournament field was announced Monday, Tennessee was left out. Spaide, though, will have one more year with a talented Volunteers side -- one that includes Spade's roommate, New Zealand national team forward Hannah Wilkinson. NCAA bid or not, Landis was sure she'd be back on the pitch at some point.
"I'll be on the field somewhere," she says, "because I have been playing soccer for almost 20 years."