Owen Betz and Jeff Bruni Jr. have done plenty to earn the reputation as two of the best soccer players in Mississippi.
Betz, a goalkeeper at St. Stanislaus, helped lead the Rockachaws to yet another Class 4A state championship while Gulfport's Bruni was one of the state's leading goal scorers.
Regulars on the region's select soccer circuits, the Northern Kentucky signees recently took their talents on the road to Costa Rica.
As part of the Olympic Development Program's Region 3 team, which is comprised of 1998-born players from south of North Carolina and east of Texas, the two South Mississippians helped the Americans post a 2-1-1 record against Costa Rica's academy teams Alajuela, Cartago, Belen and Heredia.
It was an experience neither South Mississippian will forget.
"Costa Rica was really cool," Betz said Tuesday, a week after returning stateside. "The culture was magnificent and the teams we played were pretty decent."
In addition to Costa Rica's professional stadiums and experiencing a new culture, the country's abilities on the pitch took some getting used to but certainly weren't a surprise.
"Their style of play is constantly moving forward with passing," said Bruni, normally a forward who played right halfback for the ODP team. "They're very aggressive. They work the ball down the sides and then make combination plays."
Holding their own
Both Bruni and Betz said they
felt like they held their own on the trip.
Betz said he let in an early goal off of a deflection in the team's first game but made upwards of 15 saves to preserve a 1-1 tie against Alajuela, earning him the ODP's MVP honors for the game.
"I was very busy. They're a professional team so I was definitely expecting (the shots against)," Betz said. "After I made my first save there were just a ton after that.
"I probably saw more shots in that one game than I did all season with St. Stanislaus."
Betz also played in the team's third game, a 2-1 win over Belen.
"The competition is way, way different, but it's fun playing in those big stadiums," he said. "It kind of adds to the pressure. It's a lot higher quality of competition so it forces you to play better."
Leaving a mark
Following the Sun Herald's All-South Mississippi photo shoot last month, both Bruni and Betz said they hoped playing abroad would help put South Mississippi's soccer scene on the map.
Tuesday, both felt like, while there's plenty of work left, their success opened some eyes.
"When you say you're from Mississippi, people kind of look down on you," Bruni said. "They expect us to be unskilled or not fit, but when they saw us play, they realized it really doesn't matter where you're from. We can play."
Added Betz: "I think we performed really well compared to the other kids.. (Mississippi) isn't quite on the map yet -- but you have to start from somewhere.
"It's a foot in the door, definitely."
Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.