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Youth Soccer Becoming Popular on Fields in Camden

By Lian Skaf, Courier-Post Staff Writer, March 30, 2003

Sometimes the importance of sports is much more than the game itself. In the case of the newly-formed Camden Youth Soccer Club, the spirit of the city and the excitement parents and children have that soccer has finally come to town, far outweighs the final score.

"This is going to be something very big for the city," said Wanda Cruz, a volunteer coach in the new league, which debuted Saturday with hundreds of children playing in soccer games at Camden High School and at the Rutgers-Camden Community Park. "Here in the city, the kids are more focused on football and basketball. Now that soccer is coming, it's great for diversity. Maybe one day we'll even get hockey."

Like most suburban areas around the country, youth soccer has been a staple in many South Jersey towns. From 7-year-old players sucking on orange slices after pee-wee games to teenagers traveling around the state on select teams, growing up on soccer has become a rite of passage for many area youngsters.

The soccer tradition, however, never seemed to make its way to Camden on a similar scale. While smaller scale programs have had limited success, nothing with the magnitude of the Camden Youth Soccer Club has been present in the city. Now after years of empty fields and scoreless Saturday mornings for many Camden children, the goal posts are finally being raised.

The league's spring season got under way Saturday as more than 400 children played on one of the 38 teams. The teams were divided into four different age groups (U-6, U-8, U-11, U-14). Yet, while the city's overwhelming response to youth soccer now has hundreds of parents, coaches and organizers involved in the program, the daunting task of building Camden's soccer program from the ground up was first taken o everywhere and everyone. The Philadelphia Kixx indoor professional soccer team helped start the program, donating soccer balls and lending players for clinics.

Local organizations such as the Police Athletic League, the Girls and Boys Club and even neighboring soccer clubs offered help. When Bonnette turned to Rutgers women's soccer head coach Brian Sheehan to help train coaches, Sheehan jumped on board as well. "When we went to the meetings and saw all of the parents and people show up, it was great," Sheehan said. "We really wanted to see this thing take off."

Sheehan's first move was to train newly-enrolled coaches. Enlisting the help of Haverford College men's assistant coach Scott Norton, Sheehan set up classes for the more than 40 prospective coaches. With coaches coming in all ages and backgrounds and with varying soccer knowledge, Norton had to start from square one. "We had so many different coaches from brothers and sisters who want to coach their younger siblings to parents who want to coach their sons and daughters," Norton said. "We run the gamut. I get people who don't know if the ball is pumped up, but those are the people who make it work."

Coming in with very limited knowledge of the sport, Shirley Smith was one of Norton's most inexperienced, but most dedicated new coaches. "I was going to move him to another school because they didn't have soccer here," said Smith of her 7-year-old son Jaryd. "His father and I knew nothing about soccer so this is a whole new thing for us. I can actually coach a team now, though, with drills and everything. I know how to go about it."

Realizing the importance of teaching the game to the newcomers in Camden, Bonnette and Sheehan decided to create a relaxed atmosphere in the program's first year. Setting up coed teams and planning to ignore scores and standings, Bonnette is doing his best to stress fundamentals and looks at the program as an important social step rather than a hotbed for competition. With the success of athletes from Camden in other sports, that attitude might not last for long.

For now, though, the Camden Youth Soccer Club is simply giving the children an opportunity to play the game its neighbors have been playing for some time. "This is great and long overdue," Bonnette said. "Moms and dads are pleased that their kids are going to have something to do and grandparents are going to be able to come with lawn chairs and watch their grandkids play."

In time, a successful program could even persuade some of Camden's budding basketball and football stars to strap on shin guards instead. When that day comes, says Norton, soccer will be king. "I go over to Europe and all the coaches are scared," Norton said. "They say God forbid when the Michael Jordans and Allen Iversons play soccer. The rest of the world will be in trouble."

Reach Lian Skaf at