Niagara-on-the-Lake Soccer Club president Carrie Plaskett’s favourite part of last weekend’s year-end festival was a chance to watch the youngest soccer players, the Timbits division, play the game.
“When they received their medals, they were so happy to get them,” she laughs. “It was so much fun to watch. We had 100 in that age group. That shows that there are a lot of young families in the area and they are coming out. It was probably the first time many of them got to enjoy organized sports.”
The soccer season wound down Saturday at the Virgil Sports Complex with friendly competition in that age group all the way up to the Under-9/10 division. It marked the return of the festival for the first time since 2019.
In 2020, pandemic rules forbade the club to offer a program. Last year, kids were back on the field in most age groups but limits to the size of gatherings meant that games were an impossibility. Instead, the club focused on smaller groups in practice situations, working primarily on soccer skills.
“This year we were able to do much more,” Plaskett says. “We were actually able to allow more interaction amongst kids playing in teams. We were even able to get back to having the older kids playing against other centres. This year definitely started to look like what the club used to do before the pandemic.”
More than 350 children were registered to play soccer in NOTL, mostly in house league competition. The club also ran three Niagara Soccer League travel teams – U8 and U10 Boys and U8 Girls.
Unfortunately, the opportunities this year ended at 12 years old. When registration began last winter, a division was offered combining boys and girls aged 13 to 15, but response was tepid at best. NOTL wasn’t alone in that dilemma, however.
“We were on the cusp,” remembers Plaskett. “We just didn’t have the numbers, and neither did other clubs. They were in the exact same situation. If our registrations had been high enough to run a team, we would have had trouble finding another club for them to play against.”
There were enough boys and girls to field a team at the U11/12 age group, but only one other club was able to join them in an informal interlock league setting.
Every week the NOTL team, coached by Rob VanEgmond Tommy Visca and Phill Lambert, alternated home games with a team from Thorold. NOTL completed the season undefeated, capping it off with a 4-0 victory in their last game.
Sharon Velsink, whose son Dean played on the team, tells The Local in an email, “there were some games we tied, the rest of them we won and, in the end, a group of kids who didn’t know each other at the beginning of the season came together. The support they showed each other was so great to see.”
Plaskett says coaches like VanEgmond, Visca and Lambert are the backbone of the organization.
“The volunteer coaches are really the key to success of our program,” Plaskett states. “We had a lot of volunteers. You could really see the kids improve on the field over the season. Our head coach (Joe Pagnotta) provided suggested practice plans. They had a lot of fun activities to build up the kids’ skills.”
“We had lots of support from the business community, too” adds Plaskett. “We had over 40 sponsors this year. We can’t thank them enough for their support.”
This month, the club will hold early tryouts for the travel teams they plan to offer next year. Currently, that includes U8 and U9 Girls teams and U8, U9 and U11 Boys teams. Plaskett says the club is also open to proposals from prospective coaches who are interested in helping to field a team at other age groups. Dates for those tryouts will be posted via notlsoccer.ca.