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FORESTVILLE — Think for yourself, that's what Mark and Lori LaForge told their three kids. There will be no television, no brain-numbing electronics at our home. We live on a beautiful 80-acre ranch off Bones Road in Occidental. That's where you'll play, where you'll figure things out. Go outside. Get active. Without the distraction of technology, you'll learn what makes you happy.

"We don't use the word 'can't' in our family," said Mark, owner of an acoustical design company.

Just do it. Nike says that and so do the LaForges. Mark and Lori didn't have to tell Val twice. Their daughter absorbed their mandate as if it was a breath of air. She had to consume it and on Thursday, Val revealed exactly how literally she has practiced and lived those instructions.

Val signed an Athletic Award Scholarship Agreement to play soccer at St. Mary's College.

Val will leave Jan. 5 for the Moraga campus.

By doing so, LaForge will bypass the second half of her senior year at El Molino.

"I've always been independent," LaForge said.

LaForge's decision is an uncommon one. High school seniors don't miss their last months at school. They have climbed to the top of the high school pyramid. They made it, past all the grief they received as underclassmen, and now it's time to celebrate, if not flaunt, their cultural superiority. It's a rite of passage. It's understood and accepted.

"I never even thought of this when I was a senior," said Alexis Sciacqua, the coach of El Molino's girls and a former soccer star herself as a Sonoma State goalkeeper. "I never heard of anyone doing this. I wish I had done what Val is doing."

Yes, it was with some envy that Sciacqua looked upon LaForge's decision, which was celebrated Thursday at El Molino with the signing of the document in front of family, friends, coaches and Mike Roan, El Mo's athletic director. Even though LaForge is 17, clearly this was a young woman sure of the direction she wanted to take. She was so sure that it took her only a week to decide to take the path less traveled.

"Val will be going to a place in which she'll be the youngest person there," Sciacqua said. "She won't know anyone. She'll be away from home for the first time."

Sciacqua paused, knowing how those words were sounding, a bit dark and foreboding, like LaForge's reach was exceeding her grasp. Sciacqua quickly made a midcourse correction.

"Val will not only be one of their star players," Sciacqua said. "She'll make a name for herself before she leaves St. Mary's."

Sciacqua said it just took her and her assistant coach, Bryana Robles, the first day of fall practice to realize what kind of player LaForge was. They already knew about LaForge. Her competitive zeal and work ethic had become well-known.

"When we took this job," Sciacqua said, "we were looking for a player a lot like us. And Val was the one. She reminded us of how we played. She never backed down from a challenge. She was ready to challenge anyone at any time. She always wanted to be the best and play with the best. Her heart was as big as anyone I have ever seen. She was a pleasure to coach."

Talent is worthless without commitment, without desire. It is an unused package that any coach, while tempted, refuses to open. Sciacqua, Robles, LaForge's club coach Justin Sealander and St. Mary's scouts all saw the same thing: LaForge was as determined as she was talented.

"When Val was 11," Lori said, "she broke her arm in a game but refused to come out. Only that night, after the pain became so severe, that she thought she might have to go to the hospital. Whenever she got hurt or got sick, Val always said the same thing: 'I can still play soccer, can't I?'"

While at El Mo, LaForge would meet Sealander at Oak Grove Field in Graton. At 5 a.m. She would practice to 6, maybe 6:30, before rushing home to Occidental to shower and get ready for school.

"And it didn't matter if it was raining or cold," mom said. "Val would never miss a workout."

St. Mary's not only came to learn about LaForge's skill as a midfielder but her mature commitment to the sport. If there is anything that attracts a college more to an athlete than skill, it's maturity. Schools don't want to invest in an athlete who will either flake out or flunk out.

LaForge is carrying a 4.0 grade-point average. LaForge will kick a soccer ball in her sleep if asked. This warms the heart of Kai Edwards, St. Mary's women's soccer coach. According to Lori, the annual tuition and fees at St. Mary's is $56,000. With that kind of money on the table, colleges do not like to gamble on athletes.

As St. Mary's learned more and more about LaForge, the Gaels made more and more of a commitment. Point of fact: Edwards offered LaForge a scholarship 2? years ago, when LaForge was an El Mo sophomore. Edwards first offered 50 percent of a full scholarship, and then increased it to 60 percent, then 70, now 80. Edwards liked her that much.

LaForge signed the scholarship document at El Molino because she would be at St. Mary's in February. She wanted to do it at her high school, the place where she became known, the place that has been everything in her life for the last 3? years.

"I need an adjustment period when I go to college," LaForge said.

To the people who know her, St. Mary's might need an adjustment period as well. Uncommon athletes break the mold, play to their own drummer and make a statement without feeling self-conscious. It's not arrogance. It's confidence. It's a commodity all gifted athletes have.

Asked what advice she would give to an aspiring girls soccer player, LaForge responded, "Dream big. Don't settle for anything less than who you are."

If, along the way, you are unsure or unsteady, don't panic. Call St. Mary's College. Ask for Valerie LaForge. She'll be happy to take your call. She'll be happy to tell you about those workouts at 6 in the morning, when she was wide awake and so was her dream.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.