SPORTS - OCTOBER 1995
by Timothy Martin
It was 1977. A group of young boys and girls were out on the field together, wearing shin guards, baseball cleats and funny, baggy shorts.
There were only five teams in this new sport league, and just a small group of parent/coaches. Running up and down the sidelines, shouting directions, the adults watched as the youngsters hovered around a black and white ball. Occasionally it flew toward the flimsy goal posts.
Coming off the field, the youngsters were covered with sweat. But did they want to play some more? You bet.
Five years later, the original 50 players had become 400. By 1985 there were 1,100. Today there are 2,800 children playing soccer in Humboldt County. And it's not just a local phenomenon.
"Youth soccer is exploding all over the country," said Rich Littlefield, commissioner of the adult soccer league.
The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) played its first game 30 years ago in Torrance, Calif. That was the beginning of what is now a 500,000-strong national sport with a motto that "Everyone Plays."
Local enthusiasm for the game can be attributed, in part, to a separation of the sexes. While boys and girls play together on some of the younger teams, as they get older the leagues become separate.
"Kids can start playing coed at age 6," said Kathryn Mild, former youth soccer registrar. "By the time they're 12, the girls don't want to compete with the boys any more. Forming a separate girls league has helped keep them in the sport."
There are also different levels of play, which has kept children interested in the game and playing to their ability, said Adult Soccer League President Eric Cortez.
"In the recreational division, everyone plays," he said. There's also a "Class 3" level where you have to try out to get on a team as well as "Class 1" (older children) and "Class 2" (younger children) traveling teams.
On a typical weekend in Humboldt County there are more than 200 soccer games played. That doesn't count high school games and "Class 3" games.
The down side of this growth is that the county lacks adequate playing fields. "We've outgrown our capacity," said Rod Lester, a Humboldt County sheriff's detective, soccer dad and youth soccer board member. "We've grown too quick."
A new soccer field was just built at Sunny Brae Middle School, and there are plans for a new sports complex in Cutten.
"One of the things we would like to do is get property so that we can eventually have a soccer complex, and not be so dependent on local schools for a place to play," Lester said.
John Goff, another soccer dad and board member, stressed the importance of upgrading and creating new soccer fields.
"Youth soccer stretches all over the county," Goff said. "We have teams from Willow Creek down to Garberville. We could use twice as many soccer fields as we have right now."
Soccer's rapid growth in Humboldt County parallels a national trend, but there's a unique local twist.
"We're one of only two leagues in the state that are fully sponsored," Lester said. "Kids who want to play only have to buy shin guards and shoes. The rest is provided by the league."
There is also a $35 sign-up fee, but uniforms, referees and coaches are provided.
The game has had its detractors, however. Complaints include the fact that there are no time outs, scores are too low, there is too much running and the game doesn't have enough statistics.
Soccer may lag behind football and basketball as a spectator sport, but it is beginning to catch up.
Attend a North Coast youth soccer game and you're quickly infected with a feeling of enthusiasm. Watch a fleet-footed boy with natural talent dribble the ball downfield. Watch a slender, shy, wisp of a girl make a thrilling pass to another player, who smacks it into the net. Watch the players -- forwards, halfbacks, fullbacks, goalie and sweeper -- make each position their own.
And it's not just little kids out there. There are more than 800 adults in the county playing the game.
They are spread among six divisions: women's open, men's open, men's over 30, men's over 40, coed open and coed men over 30/women over 25. Teams are made up of 15 to 20 players (10 field players and one goalie on the field).
Soccer has infiltrated the high schools as well. The number of boys participating nationally in high school programs almost doubled over the last 15 years, even though the overall number of boys taking part in high school athletics has declined by almost a million since 1978.
There were so many girls wanting to play in Humboldt County high schools that finally, last year, a girl's high school league was instituted.
According to Kim Laney, a long-time adult soccer player, the high school girls have taken off.
"High schools across the country are adding girls' soccer teams," Laney said. And the country has even become something of a model. "Women started playing soccer here sooner than in other countries. Japan is just getting started. I personally know two women who have just gotten recruited by a Japanese team."
Women's soccer, while a non-entity at the professional level, is popular and successful on a national level.
"In 1991 our women's team won the Women's World Cup," Laney said. "In '95 they returned to finish third."
At a Humboldt State University women's soccer match the excitement is almost palpable. HSU soccer coach Kim Benson is, in a large part, responsible for the high interest in women's soccer on the North Coast. She represents a new breed of coach.
She was raised on the game, brought up to believe it is the quintessential American sport, is thoroughly familiar with its nuances and idiosyncrasies, and is eager to give back some of what it has given to her.
"This is HSU's first year in the conference," Benson said. "The competition is incredible. Sonoma State is second in the nation. Chico State is in the top 20. The North Coast is leading the charge. The top four out of five teams in our region (California and Oregon) are in our conference."
Soccer has played a major part in Benson's life since she began at age 5. She played in high school and for Sonoma State University. She coached the last five years at Santa Rosa Junior College.
One change Benson would like to see is the addition of a junior varsity program. "Freshmen girls and boys have to play varsity," said Benson. "Soccer is one of the few sports that allows this."
The problem with having only a varsity program, she explained, is that it leaves the younger, more inexperienced players sitting on the bench, or actually, the grass. Often for two years.
"We've allowed our women's sports to grow," Benson said, but nationally, the men's programs have been ignored.
"Many countries do not allow women to play competitive soccer," she said. "Our (national) women's team is at parity with the rest of the world. Our men's team, on the other hand, is 100 years behind."
It is not difficult to imagine that the hordes of young players today will become the adult league players -- or at least soccer moms and dads -- of tomorrow. In the meantime, Humboldt County should be scouting around for even more soccer fields to build.
Tim Martin is a heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University.
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