Thousands take the field for youth soccer
With the end of summer come the beginning of a new school year, the harvest and the start of an area tradition that draws thousands of children away from their video games and outside onto the mown grass lawns of parks and schools across Springfield. It is the fall soccer season.
“Did you have fun?”
Paul Marconi directs YMCA recreational soccer. An average of 2,000 children ages 4 to 14 play in the spring and fall sessions, and this year the YMCA is celebrating 45 years of fun, fair and safe play in Springfield.
“The YMCA program involves everybody, whether you’ve never played, or you’ve played for 10 years, no matter where you live, or where you go to school. No one is ever turned away for inability to pay, and we guarantee all kids half a game of playing time each week,” says Marconi. As kids run to get their treats at the end of the game, they’re more likely to be asked “Did you have fun?” than “Did you win?”
Weekend YMCA games for boys, girls, and coed teams ages 6 through 14 run Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Four- and five-year-olds play Friday evenings. Field sizes, numbers of players on the field and game times vary by age, but they’re all played on the University of Illinois Springfield east fields. None of the games last longer than one hour.
“The great thing about four- and five-year-olds’ soccer,” Marconi continues, “is everybody plays, everybody’s involved. They’re kicking, running and chasing in a pack for seven and a half minutes (per quarter). They may stop to pick grass, or watch deer in the field, or look at geese flying overhead, but they’re mobile and active,” says Marconi.
Eleven-year-old Faith McKay of Springfield plays on the YMCA’s Little Angels team as number 23. Her mother, Tammie McKay, is happy with the team and what she describes as the social part of YMCA play. “Faith has met so many kids and made friends from other schools she wouldn’t have met otherwise.”
“When I say LITTLE, you say ANGELS. LITTLE! ANGELS!”
Just after noon the last Saturday in September, the Little Angels girls soccer team gathered around coaches Mike and Carol Saltsgaver to warm up and fire up for their 12:30 p.m. game against the Soccer Stars of Pawnee. McKay loves to play, and her coaches love to win. Although McKay is quiet and the Saltsgavers are known yellers with great big hearts, it’s a good fit.
There is clapping, smiling, cheering and turning cartwheels when the girls are playing well, but shouts from the sidelines become urgent when team members start walking and watching the ball go by. “I want this win. Don’t you?,” Coach Mike yells.
“The coach gets upset when something doesn’t go right,” says Faith. “‘Ladies, we gotta get this going!’ he’ll yell. He’s really competitive. But he’s out with us at practices and games, (in the heat, cold, and rain, adds Tammie McKay) teaching us new things, and coaching, so we have to respect him, because he’s respecting us.”
“We’re supposed to get the ball and go for the goal,” Faith continues. “I can knock people down sometimes, but I’m not being mean. I’m just trying to get the ball.” Tammie McKay agrees. “The girls are sensitive with each other about not wanting to hurt another teammate or player on another team. They’ll apologize to each other and make sure everyone’s all right if someone is kicked or knocked down.”
Like all of the coaches and referees, the Saltsgavers are volunteers in the program and, like most, have a child playing on their team. They can get a little emotional. When one Saturday’s game ended in a heart-pounding tie after a saved penalty kick, former Marine Mike Saltsgaver charged onto the field for hugs and congratulations. It might as well have been a win for the girls. “I get so emotional because they’re all my kids,” said Saltsgaver with, believe it or not, mist in his eyes. “It means so much to me. That was better than the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) League!”
In the end, says Marconi, the kids don’t pay that much attention to wins and losses. A team can have a losing season but still think they did great and have a lot of fun. “Win, lose or tie,” he says, “everyone shakes hands and cheers, the parents make a tunnel for the team to run through, they get that Rice Krispies treat and CapriSun, and life is great.”
The YMCA isn’t the only game in town, but it is by far the largest, non-traveling, recreational league. Soccer mom Michelle McLaughlin and her daughter, Sarah, enjoy the YMCA program specifically because it fits into their busy lifestyle. Because all Springfield YMCA games are played at UIS, Sarah also has time to study piano, participate in her school’s math and science academy and enjoy theater at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. “Somehow we figure out how to make it work,” McLaughlin says.
Erin Cox’s daughter, Grace, plays on the Saltsgavers’ team. “We play with the Y recreational league for fun. We want Grace’s experiences with sports to be fun – learning skills and how to play, making bonds with friends, learning how to take criticism and how to play together as a team and it’s good exercise.”
Saturday morning soccer is practically a ritual for these and hundreds of other YMCA families who bring chairs, coffee, breakfast, umbrellas, whatever the day and time call for; sit together, catch up on the week’s news, cheer for their team, and take turns bringing treats for the players and the little brothers and sisters who play ball on the side, or read and color during the game. And it’s a relatively inexpensive season; by utilizing all volunteer coaches and referees, the average cost of two seasons of YMCA youth soccer (spring and fall) can be held to around $100. Two sessions in SASA (Springfield Area Soccer Association, the other leading league in the Springfield area) cost approximately $500, plus any expenses beyond what’s covered in the basic tuition. “YMCA soccer is cost-effective,” says Erin Cox. Besides the low cost, she says, “We have three children who all play soccer all in the same place.”
Graduating to SASA
For Springfield fifth-grader Gray Freer, playing recreational soccer just wasn’t enough. “Gray needed more competition, more time on the field, not playing the same people and same teams every week,” says Meghan Freer, Gray’s mother. “And he does aspire to play in high school. So he tried out and made the premier team.” The premier is the top competitive team, made up of the most successful students who tried out for the season. Others who make it into the league but didn’t perform as well are placed on a second team where they can play and improve their skills for the next tryout.
SASA seeks premier competition that the boys could not get playing rec ball, says Meghan Freer. Now, life in the Freer household revolves around frequent state and regional tournaments.
SASA director of soccer Patrick Phillips describes the program.” We try to take as many 8- to 11-year-olds who try out as possible. From ages 12 to 18, it’s more selective. Those teams focus on players who are trying to develop into high school and college players.” Of the 300 boys and girls currently in the SASA program, says Phillips, several will go on to play for their schools and a few may play professionally.
In fact, developing talent, providing training, and showcasing the players for recruiters are all SASA priorities. “We are producing a lot of kids in the high school and college ranks who are playing,” the result in recent years of paying more attention to developing talent, says Phillips. “We’re starting to figure out our niche and do it even better now. We have scaled back the travel and increased the practice to three nights per week. The teams now practice twice as much as they play in games.”
Still, says Meghan Freer, “It’s... a... com-mit-ment. When they go to a tournament, they travel Friday night, play all day Saturday and Sunday, five games per tourney, and then they go to school on Monday.” They also play indoor soccer from November through March. Meghan and her husband, Harlan, say they “divide and conquer” to get their three boys where they need to be.
Especially on weekends. “Our weekends during the season are organized chaos,” Meghan says. When Harlan has a military commitment for the weekend, and there’s an away SASA tournament, and the other Freer boys also have a football game or YMCA soccer game, everyone else on the team pulls together to provide transportation and share hotels. Everyone works together, parents, siblings, coaches and the team, says Meghan. “We say ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’”
This soccer mom is proud to make the effort, though, from both a time and money standpoint. “I tell people, ‘I went to Iowa and stayed in the Bates Motel, I went to Indy ... I follow Gray’s passion. I support him completely.”
Making the cut
Eighteen-year-old college freshman Mike Severino started playing YMCA recreational soccer at age four, moved into SASA competitive soccer, led his varsity team for Springfield High School, and has accumulated a long list of accolades and awards for participation in state, regional and national soccer programs. Now Mike is majoring in criminal justice and playing soccer for Parkland College in Champaign. “Soccer’s my life,” he says, and reflects on what he gained from each team experience.
“The YMCA was very helpful. Very kid friendly. They taught me a lot of things. The YMCA is a very good learning experience for new players. It provides a good foundation to learn the game fundamentals and advance, and they provide a good, respectful playing experience.” Mike’s mother, Jami Severino, agrees, adding, “YMCA team sports build character. You learn to take responsibility for your position and positive team interaction. There’s no blaming one person or crediting one person. You win and you lose as a team.”
SASA selects and grooms teams of “above average and advanced players that traveled to high level tournaments with sponsors,” Mike continues. And Springfield High School provided tournament showcases for recruiters to see him in action.
Now that Mike is playing for Parkland College, friends ask if he wants to go professional.
“Everybody wants to,” Mike says. “Even when you’re a little kid. You see them on TV and you want to be that guy. The David Beckham. It’s a lot tougher than people think, though. To make it, you have to start very young, know the right people, put in the time and effort to be the best, and your parents have to pay a lot of money to play the high-level tournaments to get you seen (by professional teams). And then, if you make tryouts, you have to work your way up from the reserve squad.
“My recommendation for kids is, start young,” Mike continues. “For parents, be willing to put in the effort with your kids. And, just have fun. I feel like soccer players are the best athletes in the world. They’re physically fit, smart and can play any sport. And there’s constant action. It’s a fun sport.”
Former soccer mom and lifelong soccer fan DiAnne Crown kicks a surprisingly effective toe ball.
The last regular season game of fall YMCA soccer was Oct. 15, but tournament play is scheduled for Oct. 22 and 23 at UIS. For more program information, call the YMCA at 544-9846 or the SASA office at 891-4486.