The World Cup is currently showing what soccer can mean to the world. The Boys and Girls Club soccer program is showing what soccer can mean to a community.
Held Mondays through Thursdays on the fields surrounding Kenai Central High School and Kenai Middle School, the program has 400 kids playing this year from age 4 through high school.
After two weeks of practice, the first games were held this week. They will run until the last week of July.
“It’s always amazing to come out here and see the field full of kids,” said Desiree Traxler of Kenai, who coaches a team with sons Eamon, 9, and Zairhen, 7. “There’s 13 kids on my team.”
The program not only serves to get kids involved in soccer and sports in general, but also acts as a social mixer for both the players and the parents. Coaches, from high-schoolers to those 74, volunteer to help kids, while high school-aged referees get a chance to make money for the summer.
“All of the Boys and Girls Club sports programs are beginning programs designed to get kids introduced to healthy habits,” said Erik Dolphin, the athletic director at the Boys and Girls Club. “You’ve gotta start somewhere in sports, and we want to be the first steppingstone to be involved.”
Lance Coz is currently the general manager for the American Legion Post 20 Twins baseball program, just as he was in the early 1990s when he really got the outdoor soccer program rolling as athletic director for the Boys and Girls Club.
“It caught fire pretty quickly,” said Coz, the Twins GM since 1974.
He still remembers getting a grant from what was then Phillips Petroleum to build all the goals. Coz then made a decision that still has an impact today, deciding to size the fields based on age rather than make all the kids play on a full-sized field.
“Soccer purists said they needed to play full-sized fields, but I decided to have them play half-sized fields,” Coz said. “It was more activity for them.
“Most of the naysayers ended up saying, ‘You’re right.’”
Ironically, Coz ended up pulling numbers from baseball.
“The popularity of soccer was there,” Coz said. “So many parents want to be involved with their kids in one major sport and take the rest of the summer off.
“Kids chose between Little League baseball and soccer, and it grew toward soccer because of the lower expense and everybody gets involved.”
Coz also started the Boys and Girls Club indoor soccer program, and said the thrill of watching kids go from looking like bumblebees chasing the ball to an organized team is worth any impact on baseball.
“I’m glad with the way it’s all worked out,” he said.
Dolphin said indoor soccer was at 445 players this season, and there have been times the summer program has pushed 700 players.
All in the family
Three families show just how much of an institution the program has become.
Eric Willets has had daughter, Madison, 18, and sons Aiden, 15, Avery, 13, and Simon, 11, in the program.
“It’s been a great summer activity for the kids,” Willets said. “Avery didn’t end up sticking with it, but it was a great chance for him to try it out.”
Willets is actually a wrestling coach, but he said the things taught in the program like moving all directions, running and working as a team are universal to all athletics.
“Soccer’s great because anyone can do it,” Willets said.
The wrestling coach in Willets did come out when Simon, who will be a sixth-grader at Soldotna Montessori, decided he wouldn’t go back in the game due to a knee injury and his father jokingly chided him about the decision.
Despite the injury, Simon was still enthusiastic about the program.
“I like the action. It’s fun,” he said. “It gives friendship skills and social skills. I really gives us an opportunity to work together.”
Desiree Traxler also quickly saw sons, Eamon and Zairhen, fall for the program.
“They’re soccer boys for life,” she said.
Eamon, who will be in fourth grade at Montessori, didn’t take long to get hooked.
“The second I set foot on that field, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I just think that soccer flows in my veins. It’s another part of me.”
Aaron and MaryIrene Ray of Kenai have five in the program — 13-year-old Aryelle, 12-year-old Charlie, 9-year-old Allaynah, 8-year-old Christian and 7-year-old Corban.
The Rays started in the program in 2015.
“We wanted to keep them active and get them in a good social situation with other kids,” Aaron said. “They’re home-schooled so it is a good opportunity for the kids to meet other kids.”
The price of the program also is right, at $95 per player and only having to pay for the first three players. Aaron likes the fact the emphasis is on getting all the players equal playing time, and not on wins and losses.
“Kids are always competitive, but this is not ultracompetitive,” Aaron said. “It’s not the end of the world if you win or lose. They’re just having a good time.”
MaryIrene said more than the players get the chance to make friends.
“It’s a great way to meet people in the community,” she said. “I meet people through my job at the post office, but this is a great way to get to know the people around you.”
Feeding soccer greatness
The central Kenai Peninsula has had a lot of success in soccer at the high school level. The Kenai Central boys recently won the first state title ever for the peninsula.
The title came at the Division II, or small schools, level, which was created this year. But even competing against all schools in the state, the peninsula has more than held its own against schools with higher enrollment.
The Kardinals boys tied for third in state in 2017, took second in 2016 and fifth in 2015. The Soldotna girls also took third at state from 2012 to 2014. The Kenai girls had a run of four straight state appearances snapped this season.
Dolphin also coaches soccer at the comp, middle school and high school levels. He said the purpose of the Boys and Girls program is not to feed the high schools with talent. He also said it definitely doesn’t hurt that so many are introduced to the sport at a young age.
“I think it helps,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find many kids on the high school teams around here that didn’t play Boys and Girls Club in some capacity.
“Pretty much every kid played when they were little. That doesn’t mean they stuck with it.”
Simon Willets and Eamon Traxler both report eagerly kicking the ball around at home. The Rays report pipes from the septic tank being used as goals in backyard games.
Desiree Traxler is the pool manager at Soldotna High School. She said the formula for success is the same, no matter what the sport.
“You see them start to love the sport at a young age,” she said. “Then you just watch them get better and better every year.”
Value of volunteers
“One of the hardest things about doing these programs is finding enough volunteers,” Dolphin said. “There are too many teams for me to coach.”
For instance, the outdoor program has 34 teams, meaning 34 volunteer coaches are needed. With the smaller teams in indoor soccer, the pressure is really ramped up. This year, there were 45 indoor teams.
The volunteers are of all ages, as 74-year-old Horst Haunold of Soldotna and Tika Zimmerman, a junior at Nikiski High School, show.
Haunold has been volunteering at the central peninsula program for 22 years, and volunteered in Anchorage and Juneau before that.
“I love the sport and want to give all the kids a chance to play it while they are growing up,” he said. “It keeps them away from TV and video games.”
Haunold is a former backup goalkeeper on the national B team in Austria, so he knows the impact soccer can have on life. He still plays in a pickup game every Sunday afternoon. He coaches two teams, so that means he is out at the fields four days a week. He used to coach three, but his wife told him he had to cut back.
“I think the Boys and Girls Club program is one of the best programs around,” Haunold said. “I think they need more support. Erik puts in a lot of time here.”
Dolphin said help in the form of volunteers or sponsorship money is always welcome. He said sponsorship money is used to keep down the cost of the program and to assist families that have trouble making the $95 registration fee.
Zimmerman is a soccer player at Nikiski and needs volunteer hours so she can graduate with honors. A former Boys and Girls Club player herself, becoming a coach of a second- and third-grade team was an easy decision.
“I’ve definitely seen growth in the kids,” she said. “There were some on the first day that were shy and didn’t want to talk and now they’re having fun and having no problem partnering up.
“They’re really breaking out of their shells.”
She added five of the 10 on the team have never played a sport, so watching them progress has been rewarding. She also has enjoyed the kids getting comfortable with her and letting her know how their weeks are going.