Girls' soccer all-stater selects school that feels like 'family.'

With her dad as her high school coach, soccer has long been a family affair for Nicole Howard.

And when she moves on to play college soccer, she's going to a program that's already established as a second family.

On Wednesday Howard, a senior all-state forward for the Rolla High School girls' soccer team, signed a letter of intent to attend and play women's soccer at Lewis & Clark Community College in East Alton, Ill.

The Howard family is very familiar with the Lewis & Clark soccer family. Nicole's brother, Jason, played two years there before moving on to Fontbonne University.

Nicole Howard's future head coach at Lewis & Clark, Tim Rooney, who has been inducted into the St. Louis Soccer and National Junior College halls of fame, was also Jason Howard's coach.

"We love Coach Rooney," said Mike Howard, Nicole's father and Rolla High School boys' and girls' soccer head coach. "He was great to Jason and it's a great program. It's a family atmosphere. He takes care of his players."

And the past several months it's the only college Nicole has considered.

"I've been dead-set on going here," she said. "I like Coach Rooney. I just think it's the perfect fit for the way I play soccer."

Nicole Howard has been one of the premier goal scorers in Lady Bulldog history. As a freshman she had 16 goals and 14 assists for the Lady Bulldogs; got 18 goals as a sophomore, and last season netted 30 goals and 15 assists to earn first-team all-state honors.

"She is a very good player," said Rooney, who has coached two national women's soccer championship teams (1999, 2008) in his more than 25 years at Lewis & Clark. "She has the ability to score goals, handle the ball and she's got speed. And she has a big chance to improve some more.

"We're losing some key people and she will have a chance to step in and fill a spot. She's going to play some forward and some midfield; she's going to be an attacking player."

Going to Lewis & Clark allows Howard to compete for national honors - the women's squad was ranked in the nation's junior college top-10 all season in 2013 - as well as allow her to eventually find the best fit at a four-year school.

"It will see where I fit in the game," she said.

"That and academically it's a good fit for her," Mike Howard said. "And Lewis & Clark's (women's soccer) program is nationally-ranked. She'll have to go in and work hard for a spot."

Both player and father/coach says there is much room for improvement on the field.

"I have to continue to work on my fitness," Nicole said. "Plus I need to pass the ball better and quicker."

"When she gets to college she's going to see a much, much faster game," Mike Howard said. "Fitness is going to be critical. And it's going to be much more physical at that level."

Until then she will continue to sharpen her skills at the club level and then this spring with the Lady Bulldogs.

"There are exactly 82 days until high school soccer season begins," Nicole said on Wednesday. "I am so ready."

"She's playing very well in club ball," Mike said. "She plays for two very good club coaches in fall and winter ball. She's going to Memphis (Tenn.) for a tournament soon.

"And (at Rolla High) we have a nice group of players coming back for this season."