A Striking Force
Southwest Florida youth soccer teams take away more than a win from a day on the field
Building much more than strong bodies, youth soccer in Southwest Florida has put kids on the fast track to developing good character and leadership skills.
With the kind of whirlwind days they have, it makes sense that the girls who wear the blue, black and white of the U16 Cape Coral soccer team are called the Cyclones. Most days, “We leave the house at 6:15 and get home at 10 at night,” says Sanibel resident John Talmage, manager of the team and parent of a player. “And then it’s time for homework.”
John and Melissa Talmage’s daughter, Olivia, plays midfield. She is one of a dedicated 21 who devote gym time, training, private coaching and game time for the sport they love. And to play on this very winning Cyclones team, they brave seasonal traffic and backed-up bridges to get to Cape Coral for practice.
But it pays off in myriad ways, from physical fitness to friendship to scholarship. Not to mention family time, because the U16 girls Cyclones aren’t doing this alone.
Neither are the Lee County Strikers’ U16 boys. Like the girls, they travel from homes all over Southwest Florida to practice and all over the state for games in a season that runs from August to about May, when the next year’s tryouts are held. Both soccer programs also field recreational teams in all age groups, which stay closer to home. But for players on the elite competitive teams, long drives, hotel stays and team dinners in unfamiliar cities are par for the course. So are missed school dances and other events.
Competitive youth soccer in Southwest Florida is a family sport. Little brothers and sisters come along for weekend tournaments and showcases, at times when most families are not sitting on bleachers and biting their nails. There is a lot at stake at this level, including but not limited to thousands of dollars in college scholarships.
That’s what Cyclones player Nicole Paquin has her eye on. “We all get looked at by colleges [at the showcase events]. But they can’t contact us until we’re juniors,” she says. A sophomore at North Fort Myers High School, she will be waiting to see what her years of soccer practice—and black belt in tae kwon do—will earn her. “It’s a good way to stay fit, and I have fun doing it,” she says. “And most of my close friends are on the team.”
Recently ranked 18th nationally, teammate Olivia Talmage is being recruited by the University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt University, the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown
“WHEN YOU PLAY ON A TRAVELING TEAM, THE MAIN REASON YOU PLAY IS TO GET INTO A DIVISION 1, 2 OR 3 SCHOOL. BUT IT’S ALSO THE CAMARADERIE.”
— Bill Blevins, assistant coach
University. That makes weekends of boarding a bus at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and getting home late Sunday night a small price to pay.
Their parents usually say it’s not a price at all. “I enjoy traveling and watching the team play,” says Gina Kowalczyk, whose daughter, Tori, is a member of the Cyclones team and has been playing soccer since she was 4 years old. “I hate it when I can’t be at a game. Even after 11 years, I never get tired of watching her.”
Team coach Kurt Albrecht, 28, recalls last New Year’s Eve spent at a Walt Disney World resort, on a break from the Disney Cup Girls’ Soccer Showcase. Most men his age had other kinds of plans for that night, but Albrecht shares the complete dedication of his players and their parents. The reward was great: The Cyclones girls won the tournament in their division, beating and tying state champions from Alabama and Kentucky. As a result, they ended up ranking fourth in the state and fifth in the highly competitive U.S. Youth Soccer national Region 3, composed of 12 Southern states. Although the regional and national rankings change, the Cyclones U16 girls are consistently very high on the board.
Albrecht grew up playing the game, following it to DePaul University in Chicago, where he played defense. He earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership and coached at several Midwestern colleges. He then moved to this area about a year ago and became involved with the Cape Coral Hurricanes and the Cyclones program, where he coaches not only the U16 girls competitive team but also the U13 boys recreation team. (Players are under the designated age before the season starts.)
Bill Blevins is assistant coach, “kind of by default,” Blevins says, laughingly. A job change left the team without a coach after last season, and Blevins was licensed and able. Daughter Savannah, 16, is a forward on the team. “So I don’t make any playing decisions or position decisions,” Blevins says.
He likes the training aspect very much, though, and sees benefits for all the girls. “When you play on a traveling team, the main reason you play is to get into a Division 1, 2 or 3 school,” he says. “But it’s also the camaraderie.” He’s noticed a greater determination and confidence in his daughter. “And of course, she’s in great shape. But I tell them it’s your head that’s going to make you successful in life, it’s not really your feet. I try to keep them grounded. Because their grades are going to be the difference-maker.”
The Strikers’ coach Andre Nesfield agrees. He stresses the importance of schoolwork with both the U16 boys and also the U12 boys, whom he also coaches. The U16 boys, in particular, have a demanding schedule comparable to the Cape Coral girls. Usually three or four members of the team land scholarships, he says. He does his part to keep that possible by making sure they study. When they travel to an out-of-town game, Nesfield requires them to bring their homework. “I tell them, ‘When you go to college, you have to keep your grade point average up.’”
Apparently their participation in soccer from a young age will help. The most active kids get the best grades, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, citing a Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University study of 214 middle-school-age students. The children who engaged in vigorous physical activity at least three times a week did 10 percent better on the core subjects: math, science, English and social studies.
Young players learn lessons in life, too, on the soccer field. “With Coach Dre, it’s all about civic responsibility,” says Dan Durbin, father of Ryan, a co-captain of Nesfield’s U16 Strikers. “He wants them to be young men, which is refreshing. We play a lot of teams where the W is the only important thing with the coach. We see that in Miami all the time.”
“I tell them, ‘You’re not just out here to play soccer,’” Nesfield says. “They learn sportsmanship, what it means to be a teammate, what it means to be a leader. You have to learn to get over it when things are not going your way.” That can mean losing games and it can mean recovering from injury, which happens.
At this level there’s always a trainer around to “handle simple repairs,” John Talmage says, whether that person is with the team or provided by a tournament. But ambulances are called at times. Knees get twisted and require surgery.
Gina Kowalczyk has watched Tori learn from being hurt. “When she’s been injured, she’s always thinking about what she can do once she’s healed to come back strong and better than she was before. That’s something that she’ll use throughout her life,” Kowalczyk says. “She’s learned that when things don’t go your way you cannot give up. If it’s something you want, you just need to keep working to make it happen.”
The Cyclones and the Strikers programs are part of U.S. Youth Soccer, which is part of the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body for the sport in this country. More than 3 million players ages 5 to 19 are in the youth division, joined by 600,000 volunteers and administrators and 300,000 coaches.
Sportswriters point to the past 20 years as a boom time for American soccer, spurred by the 1994 World Cup held in five U.S. cities. They often cite proof such as the 2015 Public Religion Research Institute’s sports survey, which found that while 8 percent of young people play youth football, 22 percent play youth soccer. Globalization and a continually more diverse U.S. population are likely influencing the rise in this country of what is the world’s most popular sport as well.
“I TELL THEM, ‘YOU’RE NOT JUST OUT HERE TO PLAY SOCCER.’ THEY LEARN SPORTSMANSHIP, WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A TEAMMATE, WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A LEADER.”
— Coach Andre Nesfield
Cyclones Nienke Abarbanel shows her power.
The Cyclones traveled to Walt Disney World to compete. Below: Cyclones player Sarah Hagan in action at a game against Intense Soccer Academy.
Strikers Ryan Durbin pressures a defender.