On many spring weeknights and Saturday mornings, it’s not unusual to see dozens of soccer balls shooting across fields either at Herman C. Michael and Oconee Veterans parks or behind Oconee County Middle School.
And it’s all a product of the approximately 1,200 boys and girls ages 4-14 who are involved in one of the Parks and Recreation Department’s 128 soccer teams.
Soccer has become Park and Rec’s largest youth athletics program for both the spring and fall seasons. Since 2018, the number of participants and teams has grown about 10 percent.
Even though fall participation dropped by 35 percent, it’s been great to have a record number of teams and participants this spring, said Recreation Manager Zach Churchill.
A vast majority of the children involved attend Oconee County Schools, he added, though they do allow out-of-county participants.
Churchill credited the program’s rise to soccer’s rising popularity in the United States over the past several years. Men’s Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League has grown.
“I think kids seeing more soccer on TV and in a bigger light has definitely played a huge role in its growth at the youth level,” Churchill added. “For us specifically, our community wants to be engaged and have their kids involved in youth sports, whether it’s soccer or one of our other programs.”
All of the recreation soccer coaches, as well as the coaches for the department’s other programs, are volunteers. Churchill called the youth soccer program’s almost 200 coaches the “absolute backbone” of what they do.
While many of the coaches have children of their own playing, some adults help coach because they simply enjoy helping the young players.
In the younger soccer groups, coaches double as referees, helping keep wayward balls in bounds and maintain a flow of play. With older divisions, they also encourage and direct players during the progressively longer games.
“It truly shows what a great community we live in that there are so many people willing to volunteer their time to help our participants learn a sport and grow both on the field and as people,” he added.
Father Eddie Green, who’s been coaching rec soccer for six years, wanted to have an active part in his three kids’ lives.
Coach Travis Stephens wants his children, including 7-year-old twin daughters, to be physically active.
“They meet a ton of friends,” he said. “They’ve been able to stay healthy and stay in shape.”
With a 3-year-old and 1-year-old, he predicts that he will be involved with rec soccer for quite a while.
Senior Program Coordinator Daniel Cochran believes that the youth soccer program’s success is due in part to the lasting life skills taught during seasons.
“While we want our players to grow as soccer players, a strong focus on sportsmanship and simply having fun helps our participants grow as people, which is bigger than any game,” Cochran said.