Before Northwest High girls soccer coach Bobby Bribiesca could begin a summer conditioning practice last week, his players had a question.
"We're going to get out of here early, right?" they asked. "We need to be home in time to watch that game."
On any other day, Bribiesca might have ignored such a request. Not when that game was a clash between the U.S. women's soccer team and France for a spot in today's World Cup final. No way he was going to let a few running drills get in the way of that.
"Hey, I wanted to watch it, too," Bribiesca said. "I have not missed one of their games yet, and I'll be going to a big World Cup party (today). They are a great team, they are playing so well and I think they are adding some flavor to the game."
There is no shortage of fans who feel the same way. As Abby Wambach and Hope Solo have lifted the Americans to within one win of its first World Cup championship since the 1999 victory at the Rose Bowl, the U.S. women's team has gained popularity both nationally and locally.
Celebrities from all across the country have raved about the team on social networking sites, ESPN has led "SportsCenter" with its dramatic wins over Brazil and France, and in Wichita soccer enthusiasts are beginning to notice more and more casual fans talking about the sport.
"Anytime you've got a national team that is doing well, it draws a lot more people in that wouldn't normally pay attention to soccer," Maize girls coach Nathan Wilkey said. "Just out here my father-in-law, who doesn't know much about it, has got the TV on for every one of these games.
"And when I'm with my nieces and they're watching the games, they know all the players' names and they want to be just like them. It's definitely motivating to see."
Those who have never played before are asking how to try out for a team, and those who have been involved for years are organizing watch parties for today's 1:45 p.m. finale on ESPN, Channel 32.
Frank Kern, president of the Sedgwick County Soccer Association, says Wichita has experienced a modest increase in youth soccer participants — between 5 and 8 percent growth to roughly 2,800 members over the last six years — and will continue to gain popularity because of the national team's recent exposure.
"Some of that will carry over and we'll continue to see the benefits of it," Kern said. "We saw that when they won the last World Cup. It's certainly encouraging. It's always good when your youth have an opportunity to look up to a national team that does well. It allows our players to emulate them at their own level."
Paige Welborn, a Northwest junior who joyfully left an abbreviated soccer practice on Wednesday to watch the U.S. beat France, is one of those players. During the summer, she plays with her Wichita Storm club team and treats soccer as a year-round sport.
In her down time, she watches the game on TV, often tuning in for the men's World Cup, Major League Soccer's game of the week and the women's College Cup.
Today, she will either watch the World Cup final against Japan with friends at Buffalo Wild Wings or attend a watch party at a neighbor's house.
"They're doing great and it's nice to have the attention on girls instead of guys for a change," Welborn said. "I enjoy watching them. They're really role models to us high school girls. We look up to them, and it gives me some hope that maybe that could be me someday. They're an inspiration to us."