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Filling the gap

SolonFC tries to bridge between elementary and high school soccer
Stella Mesch and Nate Ferguson compete for a touch during the SolonFC youth soccer club practice April 23. The club is in its second year of providing additional soccer opportunities to kids in middle school. Coming this fall is a U10 team. (photos by Lori Lindner)

SOLON– Are you ready for some fútbol?
For more than 50 Solon kids and their families, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
This is the second year for the SolonFC, a youth soccer club initiated by a few Solon parents who saw a gap in the action for kids who love soccer. While Solon’s Recreation Department runs spring and fall soccer leagues for children in preschool through grade six and Solon High School’s soccer teams pick up new freshmen each year, there were no local soccer opportunities for players in seventh or eighth grade.
Unless families chose to commit to a traveling soccer team, which are usually expensive, often overly-competitive and always time-intensive, older middle school children were sidelined when it came to soccer, leaving parents to arrange opportunities to fill the gap.
“We always managed put something together, and it was usually a parent getting a group together to go play at Iowa City Kickers, but you lost the continuity from year to year and you always had to re-establish that,” said Garret Locke.
That’s one of the biggest reasons Locke and other parents came together on behalf of their kids a year ago. They created co-ed U12 and U14 teams (for kids under age 12 and under age 14), signing them up to play against other American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) teams in Cedar Rapids, with the games typically on Saturdays.
“We wanted to have a higher level of soccer for kids who were really interested in playing, and use that to feed into the high school program as well,” said Locke.
SolonFC has become a team effort that carries all the way into the high school program. Spartan boys’ soccer coach Jeremy McMurrin attends SolonFC practices when he can, co-coaching SolonFC in the fall during high school’s off season.
His wife, Raven, head girls soccer coach at Mount Mercy University, brings a few of her players to SolonFC practices, too. The Mount Mercy students get coaching experience and credit for service projects, while serving as strong role models for the younger girls who play in SolonFC.
“For a lot of my players, it’s the first time they’ve had an opportunity to coach,” Raven said. “At Mount Mercy, service is a big aspect of our athletic programs. I think the kids are really enjoying it, and learning a lot every day, which is really what you want to see.”
“It benefits everybody,” Jeremy said during a recent SolonFC practice. He makes a point of touching base with kids and coaches in order to build relationships with the players he and Solon girls’ soccer coach John Tucker will see on their fields in the future. “When the parents approached us with this, we said it’s perfect for us. This really targets the middle school age group.”
Locke agreed.
“Getting together with Jeremy was crucial, and a total gift to the program,” said Locke. “From his perspective, he has had to re-teach the kids who maybe haven’t played soccer since fourth grade. We were trying to establish that continuity, so when Jeremy has a batch of ninth graders come in and he tells them to do a certain drill, they already know how to do it. He is going to be light years ahead of where he would be if he had to re-teach the basics.”
In addition, two of Jeremy’s strongest former players, Ben Hoy and Clayton Adams, now coach the SolonFC U12 and U14 teams. Having been coached by Jeremy, Hoy and Adams are able to emulate his coaching techniques and strategies to provide even more consistency, which helps players transition from the club level to the high school field.
“It’s kind of like a coaching tree,” said Locke. “Not only do we need soccer, but we need coaches, and as (Ben and Clayton) learn the ropes of coaching from Jeremy, they are going to end up being able to coach on their own in the future, whether it’s recreation league or high school.”
While the club takes soccer seriously, the philosophy and style of SolonFC differs a bit from the more highly-competitive traveling teams in the area. Soccer dad Sean O’Neill sees it as a great intermediate step for his daughter, Meghan.
“She loves soccer,” O’Neill said. “She wanted to be a little more competitive with a little longer season, but there are not a lot of options out there other than clubs that are real competitive, and those are year-round.”
Because of the heavy commitments of time and cost, many kids who play on traveling teams are forced to give up other activities. Locke said SolonFC offers a lot more flexibility on purpose.
“First, we tried to keep the cost low for everybody,” said Locke. And more importantly, everybody who shows up, plays. Parent managers keep track of players’ availability, and create rosters for games from week to week. “We are trying to alleviate the pressure of requiring the kids to be there for every practice, requiring them to be there for every game, because we understand all the other things kids have to do.”
And being a single-sport player from an early age can lead to trouble later, Locke added.
“Sometimes you see kids who start in first or second grade and only play one sport, and then when they get to the college level they get hurt, because they have overused the same muscles and haven’t developed all over.”
In contrast, O’Neill has seen that kind of overall development in his daughter.
“She has really liked the coaches, and they have a lot of fun, but she gets lot out of the practices,” said O’Neill. “Her skills have definitely improved. She likes that it’s co-ed, because it challenges her. And the main thing is, she isn’t force to choose one activity over another.”
SolonFC is now accepting registrations for the upcoming fall and spring 2016 seasons through the months of May and June. Included in that registration process is a new U10 team for kids under the age of 10. The club will have a spot for kids entering third through eighth grades in the fall, depending on birthdates.
Locke also invited all ages to participate in a summer camp opportunity coming to Solon, July 13 through July 17, put on by Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire Soccer Club. While Iowa City and Cedar Rapids typically host camp opportunities for young soccer players, this is a first for Solon to offer a soccer camp hosted by a club of this caliber.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from a lot of parents, said Locke.
Capping off the Chicago Fire Summer Camp week will be a Beef Days 3-V-3 tournament featuring teams of three squaring off on a smaller field. Advertising and registration for the tournament will come through the Solon Beef Days organization. Watch the website www.beefdays.com for future information on the 3-V-3 tournament.
Even if players miss the June signup deadline, Locke encourages families to visit SolonFC’s Facebook page to find more information and register at any time.
“We take the winter off, but we have summer kick-arounds where kids can play soccer under the instruction of coaches, and then start up again in the fall,” Locke said.
“It’s been cool to see the kids abuzz about it. I’ve heard that from a lot of parents, too,” Locke added. “I think people are starting to see how cool a game it is. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world– everywhere but here, people grow up playing soccer, and I think it’s just because it isn’t widely available here.”
SolonFC has a clear goal to eliminate that obstruction; to give kids a chance to enjoy learning to play soccer, and to strengthen their bodies to boot.
“They call it The Beautiful Game for a reason,” Locke said.