For the Kids

The league's motto is ``Remember, It's For the Kids'' - and for 30 years the Ocean State Soccer School in North Kingstown has taught thousands of players not only the nuances of the game, but some life lessons as well. This week Jim Hummel finds out why this volunteer organization is unique in Rhode Island.

SCRIPT:

For the past three decades it has been a jewel in North Kingstown - where boys and girls of all ages play soccer on 50 bucolic acres right in the middle of town.

The Ocean State Soccer School - located in the heart of North Kingstown, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The league began in 1983 with 50 players - and this year will register nearly 1,400 for both recreational and competitive soccer, playing both spring and fall.

Montanaro: ``We're an all-volunteer organization so it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of good people to keep it going.''

John Montanaro became president of the league's board of directors in the summer of 1999 after coaching his own three children beginning in the mid-'90s. Like many here, he'd never coached before.

Ocean State is one of only two soccer organizations in Rhode Island that owns its own land - a total of 50 acres that includes fields directly adjacent to Stony Lane - and a new set of fields in the back developed several years ago.

It all might have turned out much differently.

For 16 years the league had been renting the property for a dollar a year from Nik Nickoloff.  But that changed within weeks of Montanaro's becoming president 14 years ago.

Montanaro: ``The owner stated he was selling the property and we had roughly about a year to vacate the property.''

Hummel: ``Wow...what did you think when you got that letter?''

Montanaro: ``My jaw dropped. I was pretty much in shock and disbelief. My immediate response was - we've got to do something about that. What are we going to do?''

So the board mobilized, putting together a strategic plan to buy the property - wondering how it would finance the asking price of $300,000. Montanaro says they eventually secured funding from the Champlin Foundation and the Nature Conservancy - as the acquisition involved both recreation and preservation. A $275,000 grant - and a donation by Nickoloff back to Ocean State of $25,000 made it all happen.

Hummel: ``Fifty acres for $275,000. Do you ever shake your head thinking about that? ''

Montanaro: ``Yeah and I truly believe that the owner really wanted us to have it. We feel very fortunate we were able to do this. And a lot of the youngsters in the community today have no idea how this came about. Maybe they don't even really know who owns the property but - you look back on it now and say, you could easily get double that.''

So what makes Ocean State different from other soccer leagues? In addition to owning its own property, the league  accommodates requests for players to be paired up with friends on a team. It's a monumental scheduling task considering there are 66 teams across 11 divisions in the rec league alone.

Ocean State runs a competitive league for older players and has a referee training program. Scholarships are available for those who need financial help.

And there is a major emphasis on starting early, as young as age 3. With the youngest kids, the player-to-coach ratio is usually about 7 to 1.

Montanaro: ``I'm not aware of any other program that actually forms little teams. And we do it partially for socialization for these kids, not only to get them activity physically, but at that young age they're just starting to learn how to even communicate a little bit. So to get them together to get them some confidence and some skill building socially is another part of that too.''

Spend any amount of time here and you quickly learn that snack time for the little guys is often as important as game time.

Kayla Pelletier - a captain on this year's girls soccer team at North Kingstown High School - started playing for Ocean State when she was 5. We caught up with her several hours before she led her team into a playoff game last week against Cumberland. Kayla's coach at the high school, Randy Jones, headed up Ocean State's competitive division for years and his daughter Savannah came up through the league with Kayla.

Pelletier: ``With Ocean State I just thought it was such a great community that I was part of, I was allowed to develop that core group of people that I could grow up and transition from like even childhood into adulthood now. I definitely could link it back - way back then - my coaches that I had at Ocean State who taught me about leadership and allowed me to be the player that I am today.''

Jeff Wallace and Shelagh Michaud coach a girls rec team - and each has a daughter on the squad.  Wallace is also on the league's board and responsible for putting together all of the teams, scheduling games, doling out uniforms - and helping recruit coaches.

Wallace: ``I always tell the coaches if you've got one kid crying  - you're doing something right. It's when everybody is flopping on the floor and you can't get anything that's when it goes wrong. But the next season they know who you are, so they're more apt to listen to you. And the season after that they start actually improving and listening to some skills and what's most rewarding from a coaching standpoint is you get these kids who can barely touch a ball and now they're the ones on the breakaways on your teams because you've watched them for four years, and seen that development and had a piece in that.''

Michaud has coached nine teams over the past four years.

Michaud: ``And my goal was always that they have fun. Always that they have fun, and then I just hoped they'd learn something. Whether it was someone learning to kick the ball when they were younger, or maybe to get a pass. And then as they get older I hope that they learn more of the strategy of the game and how positions are actually played.''

And some life lessons along the way.

Michaud: ``We had a couple of weaker players and I had some very strong players and they were taking over and I said no, you can't do that, you have to work as a team, because if you're not there, or if you have the ball and they block you, just you, you've got to be able to rely on your other players. This is a team sport - it's not an individual sport.''

Hummel: ``Did the stronger players get that or was that a tough lesson?''

Michaud: ``No they did, I think what they understood was that for me sportsmanship and teamwork are the most important thing. If they're not playing nicely I'll take them out. But if you're playing your heart out even if you're losing even if you're doing poorly, and you're trying your best - I'm going to leave you in and I'm going to give you choices - what do you want to play next time?''

The league also looks beyond its own fields. On the last weekend of the season, they held a food drive and a soccer recycle program begun by two former players in 2010. Christiana Layman and her sister Cassandra, now a freshman in college  grew up playing for Ocean State. They collect old uniforms and cleats and send them to Haiti and other places in need.

Ocean State has also rallied around families facing illness. Montanaro knows it first hand: his oldest son, John, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 13, and died six years later, in 2011.

Montanaro: ``Grew up on these fields, started at U5 I coached him, he was a referee, he played a little travel soccer; while going through cancer treatment made the JV team, got in a game against Hendricken, just loved it.''

Hummel: ``Is it a mixed feeling? Because you see son our here?''

Montanaro: ``Yeah, I do. It is a mixed feeling - it hurts, but I think of all of the good times we had, I think of him playing on this field, or a particular instance when he's reffing a game or things we did on cookout day, field day, or painting, all of those things together.''

Despite its size the league has the feel of one big family - holding an annual Cookout Day in October, and the requisite Picture Day in September. Many weekends the families hang out before and after the games to catch up with friends.

And while 80 percent come from North Kingstown, players from a total of 18 communities registered this year, some coming from Lincoln and Providence.

Hummel: ``What is it about soccer? ''

Michaud: ``I think it brings together a type of person and a type of family who comes to play. I played soccer on fields like this in Illinois and I remember those Saturdays at the field and running around there's a safety in being here. They can go anywhere they want as long as they don't leave these fences. We know they're here and they're safe.''

Montanaro: ``We're here for the kids and we're trying to teach the kids life lessons and to be future volunteers and future leaders in the community and what it's all about, those types of things. That we had a positive difference in the life of a child that's come through our program.''

In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

 

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