Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Brighton's Russ McCluskey, a member of Inter FC 88, plays Alta in 5A championship tilt.

According to Mark Graham, youth soccer in Utah has improved dramatically since the turn of the millennium. Once considered perennial doormats of the Western Regionals, premier competition teams in this state have started to advance deep into the yearly event.

"The overall quality of soccer has improved significantly over the last five years," said Graham.

One of the teams at the fore of that movement has been Inter FC 88, a boys squad widely considered one of most successful in state history.

Graham, who helped create the team five years ago, pointed out that a number of other clubs — boys and girls alike — have helped lift the level of play in Utah. Still, there's no denying the vast contribution Inter has made.

Inter — which is probably at an end because its players are moving on to college — compiled impressive results during its four years of existence. It won four State Cups. It advanced out of its bracket three times at the prestigious Western Regionals, including a quarterfinal appearance last June. It qualified twice for the semifinals of the regionals, which is as good as any Utah team has done in modern history.

In the process, Inter has helped transform the perception of Utah youth soccer.

"This team did their part to bring that respect (to Utah soccer)," Graham said.

It's also helped its players reach the collegiate level, evidenced by the fact that 12 of 17 players will play collegiate soccer this fall. Two of the other five are planning to serve LDS Church missions but might play at colleges when they return. Another hasn't decided his future, one is trying out for a JC team, and the other will be a senior in high school.

Nine Inter players have earned scholarships to Division 1 schools. That is, by far, the most any Utah boys club team has produced.

Inter FC 88 was formed following the 2002 club season, thanks to three men — Dave LiPuma, Graham and Jim Jaramillo.

The Cosmos won the State Cup in 2002, only to get blown out of the water at regionals. LiPuma, who was instrumental in creating Inter, approached Graham and Jaramillo about dissolving the Cosmos and Sparta, the other dominant club of the age group, in favor of creating a single super team.

Over the phone, they agreed to call the club Inter FC 88, and the team blossomed from there.

Having someone like Graham at the helm was huge. Graham coached Inter to its first three State Cups. He's won an impressive 13 State Cups throughout his coaching career.

Graham also coached one of the other top competition teams in state history — the Utah Rangers. That squad — which featured several current local stars, including Clay Christensen and Curtis Graham of BYU and Kenneth Hickman and Dustin Bybee of the Ogden Outlaws — racked up seven State Cups and advanced to the semifinal round of the Western Regionals.

In many ways, the Rangers helped pave the way for Inter.

Top-to-bottom improvement at the club level has helped improve high school soccer. There's still a big gap between premier club teams and high school squads, but, according to Graham, high schools are getting closer.

"I thought there used to be a big gap," he said, "and I see the gap (now) closing between high school and club."

The infusion of top-level club players has undoubtedly helped high schools.

For example, Inter's roster looks like a who's who list of the elite high school players in 2006. Nine of them were selected as first-team all-staters. Two others — James Jaramillo and David Gates — would have almost certainly made the first team had they played high school soccer as seniors.

Inter FC 88 Roster


Player High School Collegiate plans

Sina Alipour Jordan Try-out with Irvine Valley CC (JC)

Reid Baker Park City Cal State Fullerton (D-1)

Vic Carlson Sky View LDS Mission

Kellen Christensen Layton Denver University (D-1)

David Gates Woods Cross Oregon State (D-1)

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Tysen Gehring Juan Diego Oakland University (D-1)

Dustin Graham Mtn. View Will be an HS senior

Austin Hughes Granger Colorado School of Mines (D-2)

James Jaramillo Mtn. View UCLA (D-1)

Matt Knoop Park City LDS Mission

Roberto Linck Park City Irvine Valley CC (JC)

Russell McCluskey Brighton Notre Dame de Namur, Calif. (D-2)

Andrew Morris Weber Loyola Marymount (D-1)

Jaddon Rogers Brighton Westminster (NAIA)

Jantzen Romney Brighton Westminster (NAIA)

Ryan Satterthwaite Davis Undecided

Ryan Ulanch Brighton Cal Poly (D-1)

E-mail: drasmussen@desnews.com