Study Hall: A look inside local startup Gradum Academy’s tech-based soccer skill development

Study Hall is a new occasional series from Scrimmage Play that will take a deep dive into broad issues and trends in high school and youth sports as viewed through the prism of athletes, coaches, schools and companies in Central Virginia.


When Albemarle girls soccer, the defending Class 5 state champions, needed to add a little something different to its offseason routine ahead of their title defense, the Patriots turned to Albemarle alum Price Thomas and Gradum Academy.


“With his close ties to Albemarle, his vast playing experiences, and his extensive knowledge of the game, he was the perfect change of pace and challenge for our girls,” said Albemarle coach Amy Sherrill.


Sometimes a team needs another voice, and Thomas, the CEO of Gradum, a private training company, was the right fit for the Patriots. He and Gradum’s blend of training and technology have been the right fit for a lot of college-bound athletes.


“Price has filled a huge gap in our area by taking soccer training a step further,” Sherrill said. “Most importantly, he connects with his trainees and genuinely enjoys the time they train together. We hope he is around for a long time.”


The way things have gone so far, that seems like a pretty safe bet.


Gradum’s Emily Perrin works with William & Mary-bound Grace Santos.


Grace Santos didn’t really start taking soccer seriously, making it one of her passions, until she was about 14.


“I got a little bit of a late start which is why Price and Gradum have been so instrumental in getting me to where I am now, I needed to make up for lost time,” Santos said.


Gradum, now more than two years into its growth, has a data-driven system that can improve any soccer player’s game and that’s allowing them to start asking some tougher questions and figure out how to help local student-athletes find a spot and then excel at the next level.


Santos went to work with Gradum, around the time she really got locked in on soccer, reconstructing her game from the ground up — literally, from the ground up. Thomas re-taught Santos how to run, the basics of how she moved athletically.


“I was taking really big strides,” Santos said. “We spent two months changing the way I run. It has really just transformed my entire game.


Thomas put Santos through tons of repetitive running drills, running with resistance bands and being dragged down the track by the young standout while forcing her to take shorter, quicker steps and keep her feet close to the ground. The work improved Santos’ explosiveness and speed, and you can see it in how she does drills and in her highlight tape now, working in shorter, more compact bursts that allow her to create or change direction or get to a loose ball. She moves efficiently and effectively.  


“We have to marry the objective and subjective parts of the game, but we want to be able to ground ourselves in data as often as we can to help develop players properly,” Thomas said. “We also provide a level of specificity and attention to detail that no one else does.”


Gradum’s approach is almost dangerously perfect for a self-determined, hard-working student-athlete. Thomas and his director of coaching — another decorated local product in former CHS standout and Vermont/UVa player Emily Perrin — use a series of tech programs and monitors, tracking Santos’ heart rate, her field movement during games and a number of other factors to gather data that they can then translate and turn into actionable goals. They then combine that with actually watching her club games, taking notes and keeping stats in pretty great detail in order to identify holes in her game and build a baseline for certain stats like headers won or passing that’s compared to players at the professional or national team level as a high end of the metric. That level of detail and context is critical to the process.


“Soccer can be sort of binary — how many goals did you score, how many assists did you have — but the problem is there can be a lot of confounding factors,” Thomas said. “So for an attacking player, we want to say how many chances did you create, how many shots on target did you have. Because if I’m playing well but the guy next to me isn’t scoring it doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t have a positive impact on the game or do my job.”


Presented with that wealth of information and a broad-based consensus about what to do about it, Santos can turn inward and not work on what she feels might be the things she needs to improve, but work on the things she knows for a fact she needs to improve.


“The level of detail is different than anything I’ve experienced anywhere else,” Santos said. “It’s something you don’t get in the club environment and something I never got training by myself.”


Santos, who is homeschooled and plays club soccer with SOCA, often takes the lessons she learns in a session and repeats them in another session shortly after that first one. Both her own personal educational situation and her personal tenacity make her a perfect fit for a system like Gradum’s. She fits nicely into Thomas’ professed mission of trying to give players in the Central Virginia area access to training and techniques that are used by professional teams. Then it becomes a question of scale. How do you get it out to everyone who needs it, who deserves it, who can do something with that level of detail and expertise.


Thomas has some ideas.


Price Thomas works with Albemarle’s Andrew Weber.


For starters, Thomas has been where a lot of talented local players have been. He’s been in their shoes, he’s walked the path they want to walk.


Thomas was a standout at Albemarle High before heading to William & Mary where he was a three-time All-CAA pick and four-year starter for the Tribe. He also almost instantly developed a desire to help other players figure out how to excel from the jump at their school.


“We’ve known each other for a long time, we kind of grew up together. He was a huge advocate of mine when I was going through the recruiting process,” Perrin said. “He got me in the weight room a lot and invited me to pickup and I think it was a huge reason I was successful in my first year at Vermont.”


As Thomas’ playing career wound down after professional trials in Europe, he started trying to think through how he can be involved, how he could help change things. Charlottesville has traditionally been a lightly-recruited soccer area in the state in comparison to larger markets like Virginia Beach, Northern Virginia and Richmond. Finding a way to draw attention to players that were here and make sure they find a home at the next level became important because athletic talent doesn’t really care about geography or socio-economic status or race or creed. It just happens everywhere and Thomas has a passion for helping build up and create exposure for talented players.


“It came down to an argument I had with a friend of mine about the identification of talent,” Thomas said. “We argue about soccer all the time, he’s my college roommate (and now Gradum’s president), Preston Whitlock. How could we codify this? The Moneyball idea really got me thinking, why is this not done with kids. Sometimes you watch college, or even professional soccer and you’re like how the hell did that guy end up there? The unfortunate flip side of that is that there are a ton of talented players who, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks at various levels due to inaccurate or inconsistent evaluations.”


So he started to blend a desire to build a more objective evaluation program with the training and technology he’d been exposed to in college and at the professional level and ended up with Gradum. And he tapped into a bunch of his friends and contacts from William and Mary and the club scene to get it started.


“He came to me with this vision of putting together an elite training program for essentially players like us and giving them a place where they can come and really get the technical and tactical training they need to play at the next level,” said Perrin who was coaching at Penn at the time. “We just kind of ran with it.”


A couple of years later, they’ve got tons of local players plugged in and improving their games. Santos is an outlier in some ways because she’s homeschooled, but its helping high school players too, like Western Albemarle’s Cameron Hucek and Caitlin Harvey, Albemarle’s Daniel Starr, Andrew Weber and Savannah Alexander and CHS’s Kyle Lehnert just to name a few. Last summer Gradum helped prep recent Charlottesville grads Abibi Osman and Yahya Mohammed who headed to Lynchburg. They’re working with current college players with local connections too like Western alum Anna Sumpter who’s at UVa, Monticello alum Hannah Keith who’s at William & Mary and Thomas’ sister Carmen Thomas, and Albemarle alum who plays for James Madison.


Working with Osman and Mohammed is indicative of that secondary goal that Thomas and Gradum have in mind — finding a way to work with players who are talented but perhaps don’t have the resources to get the kind of personal training Gradum provides. Both CHS grads were raising money to pay for college itself ahead of matriculating to Lynchburg and Gradum had the opportunity through the generosity of community members to train them over the summer. Thomas is exploring a number of different ways to make that happen on a regular basis, to make sure that when talented players who need the training but can’t afford it get it.


The private coaching world often isn’t, by nature, a meritocracy. It requires resources that aren’t there sometimes.


“I support hard work, but we never talk about the chasm in access to opportunity that exists in all sports,” Thomas said. “The reality is there is a resource necessity to gain a certain level of exposure, from access to training, to ID camps, to ODP and club fees — the costs associated with playing soccer at a high level aren’t cheap. As an organization, Gradum is committed to helping to find a way for those without the resources to still have an opportunity to chase their soccer dreams.”


Gradum is currently in the early stages of building out a program that will help support young players who may otherwise be left on the outside looking in of a training regimen like Gradum provides. They’re working to create equal access for those student athletes.


Whether it’s helping out those who need it, helping teams hear a fresh voice or take their technical skills up a notch or just bringing a blend of technology and preciseness to the evaluation and development process, Gradum is making a major impact.


“There should be more kids in Charlottesville coming out every year,” Thomas said. “We wanted a system where us, the kid, the parents and their potential suitors could come up with a similar opinion. We’re trying to figure out how to quantify success for these kids.”


If part of that success is in the process and a commitment to getting better, Gradum is already finding out how to quantify it. They’re filling a void according to Sherrill and so far, they’re filling it quite well.