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Local soccer group sets great example

Dave DeWitt knows soccer. Twin Ports soccer, specifically. Nobody has a better handle on local recreational youth soccer than DeWitt, who was instrumental in the development of the Arrowhead Youth Soccer Association (AYSA) in 1979 and today conti...

Dave DeWitt knows soccer. Twin Ports soccer, specifically. Nobody has a better handle on local recreational youth soccer than DeWitt, who was instrumental in the development of the Arrowhead Youth Soccer Association (AYSA) in 1979 and today continues to serve as the group's referee coordinator and one of its most enthusiastic supporters.

"The original group of local soccer organizers included a couple of professors from UMD, who had a soccer background from their playing days on the East Coast, and Will Salo, Steve Downing and myself," DeWitt said. "The YMCA and Jeff Palmer also provided our group with invaluable assistance in the beginning, allowing us to use their facilities while providing us with much-needed office space. Becoming affiliated with the state program in 1983 also was a big step for our program."

The soccer group started with a split spring and fall league, before switching over to separate seasons starting in 1984 -- with 12-and-older groups playing from May through July and six- to 13-year-olds competing in August and September. The league structure remains pretty much the same today.

The Lower Division season, for U6 - U13, begins the first week of August. U6 and U8 play one game each week, and U10, U12, U13 teams play one or two games each week. U12 and U13 teams each have a Saturday Festival, where teams play two games in one day.

The Spring Upper Division recreational season begins in May for U12, U14, U16 and U19 teams and runs through the end of July.

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Several AYSA clubs are also registering players ages 11-18 for competitive soccer. The competitive soccer season will begin next May 15 and will run through the end of July. Competitive soccer offers local players the opportunity to compete against skilled teams from inside and outside the area, and includes more practice and development work and more commitment from both players and parents. Leagues will often include teams from the Twin Cities.

Approximately 6,000 youths now compete in AYSA, including about 4,000 from the immediate Duluth area.

The growth of local soccer doesn't surprise DeWitt.

"Some people thought that soccer would be a flash in the pan, a fad that would fade away," DeWitt said. "The thinking by some, including those formerly on the local school board, was that people were too much into football. But it was easy to see that kids really loved soccer. It allowed kids of every size to play, and it was cheap. What's wrong with that?

"Our soccer group has always been committed to the recreational aspect of the game, believing that the better good is to have thousands of kids playing recreational soccer than on us simply focusing on developing kids for the various high school programs. What started out as an alternative sport, today you ask the kids in the schools what their favorite sport is and they say soccer."

DeWitt also refutes the argument that soccer takes kids away from other sports."I look at it like we've offered a new opportunity to kids who may not have played other sports," DeWitt said. "And even if they did, for every kid that now is playing soccer someone else is taking that kid's place on the football team. Soccer has opened up a whole lot of opportunities for kids who might not be tall enough for basketball or big enough for football. We offer something special for kids even if they never play in a competitive league or high school.

"Let's say a boy or girl has played soccer since they were 6 years old, and played through the age of 19 yet never played for the high school team. Was that a failure? No."

AYSA consists of teams from Grand Rapids, Hibbing, Two Harbors, Cloquet, Esko, Superior, Hermantown, Proctor and Duluth. "The growth of soccer in our region, and nationally, shouldn't come as a surprise," AYSA president Jake Peters said. "It's a fun sport that requires very little equipment, and everyone can play it. Players come in all sizes and shapes, and they can play it well. We have a lot of kids that may never go on to play high school soccer."

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AYSA, being largely a recreational program, has put a great emphasis on including all kids in the sport -- at an affordable price, said AYSA board member Archie Clark.

"I think kids and parents are attracted to soccer partly because they don't need a lot of equipment or training -- a soccer ball and a pair of shoes and they are ready to go play," Clark said. "As an AYSA board member, I can state that we listen to parents, players, referees, other soccer clubs, and react accordingly to make our program better. To me, that is the real strength of the program."

AYSA board secretary Mark Johnson said, "AYSA provides opportunities for kids to play from age 5 to 19 and works to improve skills of all those involved in the sport including players, coaches and referees. We have developed a competitive program for those who are interested in those challenges while still placing emphasis on our recreation program, since most kids really want to have fun and soccer is fun to play."

Youth soccer is especially good for children because all players, from the less skilled to the most skilled, can have fun and get a great workout by playing the game, AYSA board member Bob Espenson said.

"In our area, the rec program remains strong, unlike the Twin Cities that tend to pull the better players and the richer parents into the club teams," Espenson said. "A strong rec program means the teams retain more of a neighborhood flavor."

AYSA fall league wraps up next weekend with the U15 playoffs. The Lower Division, for kids 5 to 13, ends this weekend. About 4,000 youths participate in the Lower Division, AYSA Executive Director Dave Geary said.

AYSA might be reaching a plateau in terms of participation, Peters said.

"Our numbers have remained about the same for the last three years," Peters said. "But we're not too unhappy with it, because if we continued to grow, we'd have a problem finding more fields and referees.

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"AYSA started small and grew quickly. We're now starting to expand beyond our recreational teams to more competitive teams, where kids have to try out. We now have competitive teams for U12 and up, and about half the teams that these teams play are from the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities."

Elite players are drawn to two competitive programs locally, East Select Soccer and Gitchi Gumme. East draws its players from East Duluth, and Gitchi Gummi draws from throughout the community.

East Select Soccer might break off from AYSA to operate separately a year from now. AYSA is in continual need of more fields and referees, Peters said.

"We're actually working on a study to determine our field needs," Peters said. "We have some excellent facilities, including the three fields at Arlington and the five at Jean Duluth, but teams are always scrambling to find fields for practice. It's always a constant battle to find places for kids to play.

"We also are in need of more referees. We don't have a lot of people who have a history with soccer, so a lot of our referees are young kids, age 13 and up, who we allow to work our games with the young kids. But it's always a challenge to find referees to fill all the games."

DeWitt says if you ask people why they quit refereeing, "most will tell you that it's more of a hassle than a matter of getting old."

"Our Fan Conduct Card is helping to foster the behavior of respect for officials, players and coaches to help make the environment at games more respectful," DeWitt said. "We are taking the responsible approach by challenging people to remember that these are kids, and they're suppose to be having fun. It's not professional soccer."

Peters has helped to spearhead the Fan Conduct Card initiative.

"The card, on one side, speaks to proper fan behavior and, on the back, what things we shouldn't do, like yelling at referees," Peters said. "We were having some problems, but not a lot of it, with people yelling at referees and parents and coaches yelling at players -- which wasn't appropriate. Kids hand out cards before games, and it has had an immediate effect. The playoffs were much quieter. But while refereeing a recent game, I found myself going over to the fans and saying, 'You don't have to keep too quiet. You can cheer, too.'"

AYSA is governed by a 20-member board of directors, who represent the various programs in the league. Also on the board are Gayle Froelich (treasurer), Steve Wangen (Upper Division chair), Royal Alworth (vice president), Phillip Marquis (Lower Division chair), Mike Ellingson (past president), Dave Robinson (competitive chair) and at-large members Bryan Anderson, Sue Hanson, Brian Ronstrom, Ron Jessico, Kevin Schulte, Ed Livingston, Bill Spohn, Rick Flesvig, Cindy Matheson and Christopher Swanson.

The league's Web site is located at www.arrowheadsoccer.com .

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