A Strik­ing Force

South­west Florida youth soc­cer teams take away more than a win from a day on the field

RSWLiving - - Features - BY DAYNA HARP­STER

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.

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