Waterford - According to Melina Spanos, there are rules to being Greek. A few of them: Put your family first, hug everyone who initiates an embrace with you and never, never say no to food.
"My grandmother fed me until I thought I was going to throw up," Spanos said with a smile. "But if you said no, she'd get sooo sad. I didn't want to make her sad. I was the chubbiest kid.
"When you say 'Greek,' you get the picture of old-fashioned, traditional. I love my Greek family. I grew up surrounded by the best people. They did everything to have me have a happy childhood. Everyone was tied together at the hip."
For Spanos, there are also rules on the soccer field.
A 17-year-old Waterford High School senior, Spanos is an all-star forward, one of the most creative players that coach Rob Brule has come across. Once, while scrimmaging against Brule as a freshman or sophomore, she lifted a rainbow kick - flipping the ball in the air from back to front to better position the kick - over Brule's head, a move which he said she pulled off in full stride.
Spanos, an all-state candidate and a Waterford captain who is working to bring the Lancers back to the top of the Eastern Connecticut Conference this season, committed to play Division I soccer next year at Hartford, receiving a scholarship.
"When she's in the middle third of the field, the rule is we want her to be simple," Brule said. "When she's in the attacking third, she can be as creative as she wants to be, as selfish as she wants to be.
"We've always seen the talent in her. She can use both feet. She's always balanced. And she doesn't think at all; she's always at attack speed, going as quickly as you can get it. That's a rare thing in the girls' game."
The most fun thing is, perhaps, watching Spanos pull off her roles in both domains with such ease. Family and soccer.
"She's extremely gracious and such a wonderful teammate when she's talking about her teammates," Brule said. "She'll be the first person to make fun of herself. Even the coaches we play against, if she scores against them it's hard for them to get mad. ? I love the kid."
First, there's Spanos' family. Her parents, Harry and Laura, are 100 percent Greek and Melina grew up learning the language before learning English, still understanding it perfectly on a family vacation to Greece this summer.
Her paternal grandfather and grandmother - papou and yiayia in Greek - the late George and Panaila Spanos, emigrated from Greece in 1965.
George went on to operate Crown Pizza in Waterford, Angie's Pizza in Mystic and Sailor's Three Pizza in New London.
Spanos' father, Harry, a Stonington High School graduate, currently owns Mystic Pizza II in North Stonington, where Melina buses tables.
Spanos has many fond memories of her grandparents, who lived on Rossie Street in Mystic.
"My grandfather was a very old-fashioned guy. He loved to dance a lot. He could put a smile on your face. He was so kind to everyone," Spanos said. "My grandmother was like my mother and father combined. We were very close.
"A lot of times I'll go drive by their house in Mystic even though they're not there anymore. There's a tree in the back of the house where my grandfather carved all our initials."
It was Harry who helped cultivate his daughter's love for soccer, bringing her to a local indoor arena when she was 6 or 7 years old. His teachings were passionate enough to make bystanders think to themselves, "Oh my god, who is this guy?" Spanos remembers with a laugh.
But it was he who made her the soccer fanatic that she was, looking up videos of soccer great Ronaldo on the Internet, and dreaming of someday playing for the Greek National Team.
"He was yelling in a way to make me better, not in a bad way. Without him I wouldn't have fallen in love with the game," Spanos said. "I like it when people yell at me when it's soccer-related. I don't take it personal."
One of the moments Spanos remembers of her dad's emotions translating to soccer came when she was attempting a penalty kick during an Olympic Development Program game when she was 14 or so.
"I looked to the side behind the fence and he was on his knees praying," she said, erupting into giggles. "When I made it, he was the happiest. I understand, though. If I had a kid, I'd be freaking out, too."
Life as a Lancer
Spanos also recalls the first time Brule ever watched her play as a young girl.
"Vividly," she said, smiling again. "My dad came over and said, 'Melina. Rob. Brule. Is coming. To see. You.' I got so scared. I was taking the best corner kicks that day."
In his 20th season at Waterford, Brule has put together 12 ECC championships in the last 14 seasons and took the Lancers to the Class M state final in 2002. The most prominent alum is Katie Schoepfer, a 2006 graduate who scored a state record 147 goals, earning All-America honors at Waterford and Penn State and now playing at the pro level with the Boston Breakers.
"He brings in Katie Schoepfer to practice," Spanos said. "Like, Katie came out of the same school that I came out of."
Spanos hopes to follow a similar path, helping to add to the team's history.
As a freshman, she scored the deciding goal in a 2-1 victory over Lyman Memorial in the inaugural ECC tournament final.
The next season, Spanos beat Lyman again, this time with 46.5 seconds remaining in double overtime of the ECC semifinals, weaving among three defenders and putting a goal inside the far post, a moment Brule referred to as "magical."
Last year, however, Brule feels Spanos tried to score more with brute strength rather than finesse. The Lancers had another all-state forward in Hannah Scahill. And it was East Lyme that claimed the ECC Large Division and tournament titles.
Brule said now, as a senior, is Spanos' time to shine.
"She realizes it's on her to orchestrate this team," said Brule, whose team moves to the ECC Medium Division this year. "She's going to continue to push herself individually. ... I'm hoping she can be more accurate than powerful, but when it's over she's going to be added to the long line of player of the year candidates we've had who are just on a different level as all the other kids."
Spanos is a talented artist, as well, enjoying drawing. She is a loving daughter, devoted sister to her younger brother George and to the relatives with whom she became further acquainted this summer in Greece, making time for all the important things.
She doesn't, however, play any other sports.
Said Spanos: "I think of soccer as an escape. There's stress to get goals, I guess, but I just love playing the game."