This is a post that’s LONG overdue, but I honestly couldn’t bring myself to write it when I should have in July 2007. So bear with my procrastination as I take a small trip down memory lane about a U10 Rec team I had the honor of coaching and that I will always remember. This post isn’t about me or some lame attempt to congratulate myself as their coach – far from it. I learned more from them than they ever could have learned from me and I felt they deserved to have their hard work chronicled as they move on to bigger and better things.

I started out coaching like many … with the youngest players in U6. My son had been on a U6 team whose coaches were moving to U8 and they asked me to take over the team. From there I sort of followed my son up as he got older, though I quickly found myself coaching/assistant coaching two teams – my son’s U8 team and the U6 team he had previously been on. U6 and U8 were so much fun as the kids learned the basics of how to play and worked hard to develop their core skills. Like many new coaches, at the time I couldn’t imagine coaching an ‘older’ team. While we had exciting matches even at the U6 level between teams that knew each other well, there was something about the U10 age level that was intriguing to me as a coach. It was an age that the kids really started to ‘get it’. They started to understand how to put those basic ball skills together and to pass with some form of reliability. So as my son aged up to U10, I overcame my reluctance and was very excited about taking on a U10 team.

I had coached a number of kids along with my son since they were young starting in U6 and/or U8. So when my eldest moved to U10, a few of his teammates moved up with him to our new team and the rest of the spots were filled at random. We had a new business in town, Smithfield’s Chicken and BAR-B-Q, agree to sponsor our team and we found some really cool uniforms from Score Sports. The Smithfield’s Storm were born and ready to play, but we were a YOUNG team. Out of 14 players (we still played 8v8 at the time), we had 3 that were true U10s. The rest were U9 players. This was more an artifact of us being a young and growing soccer league. We always had more younger kids than older in U10 and above.

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­[The U10 Storm in the Fall of 2005 - Mostly U9s]

They had a rough year, playing slightly older teams. But they played hard and learned a lot. They went 3-0-4 in the Fall and 2-0-5 in the Spring. That was pretty impressive for such a young group. They wrapped up their 2005-2006 season with some very exciting matches. In our last regular season match, they played a powerhouse team that was always tough to beat, having allowed only 7 goals all season. We scored 3 and lost 3-4 in a hard fought, exciting match. They then faced the #2 seeded team in our end of season tournament, and won 5-4 in a whirlwind match. Though they were knocked out of the tournament by the same team they had almost beaten at the end of the regular season, we had ended a tough season on a high note. They had shown they could play very strong teams and succeed. It gave them a huge boost of confidence and the parents were really excited for the next season when many of the younger players on the team would be older.

As the Storm enjoyed their summer vacation, our league made a change that would turn out to be partly responsible for the outcome of the upcoming seasons – they moved U10 to 6v6, while dropping the roster size from 14 to 11 or 12. Since we only had 3 true U10 players, this meant we would have a team of ALL U10 players if we had a roster of 11 kids, which was the target. It was an interesting summer as the league debated if this one team, in a unique situation, should be broken up because of their age. I hated to see the kids broken apart and denied a chance to succeed after playing a rough couple of seasons, but I also didn’t want them to have an unfair advantage. A number had played together since U6 and still wanted to play together. As it turned out, a couple of players chose to play for other teams or not return to soccer, so the league let us stay together and we ended up with a team of 11 players – 8 U10s, 3 U9s, 7 boys, and 4 girls. It was clear that the team would have the advantage of age, but it was also becoming clear they had been very lucky over the years in terms of random assignments, as the team had some very skilled players on it.

During the summer, when it was clear the team would stay together, I thought it would be good for the team to do more than just play their regular season. Our league had just started a travel soccer program, and two of our players were on a travel team as well. However, I thought the rest of the team would benefit from playing against some other teams outside of the league. So I looked into some tournament options and asked our parents, who thought it was a great idea. We’d try to do one tournament a season, including the state cup tournament in November. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Storm was a very tough team in the Fall, and went undefeated. I learned more about getting players to challenge themselves in a game than anything else that Fall. Since most of the team had played together for so long, they had really started to ‘click’ and play well. As they finished out the season, they were very excited about what was still to come – the NCYSA State Cup.  Though I’ll admit they were probably more excited about spending the night in a hotel together than playing soccer! The Days Inn was still standing when we left!

The Cup was an interesting concept for us. As a state sanctioned event, it only had boys and girls divisions. We were coed, but with no coed division, we’d play against all boys teams. We also would have to play without two of our players who also played on travel teams and were thus ineligible for the Rec Cup. In their place we took a boy and girl from another team who many of our players had grown up playing with. So with a lot of excitement and a few butterflies, we loaded up five boys and four girls into the minivans and headed to Shelby, NC, 170 miles away.

We really didn’t know what to expect as we kicked off our first match, but I don’t think any of us expected them to play as well as they did. They had a huge cheering section, partly due to our guest players, and just played their hearts out, going 3-1 and ending up as the U10 Boys Rec State Cup finalists.

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[The U10 Storm after a long weekend of soccer is all smiles]

You would think at that point, the kids would be ready for the holidays and some well earned time off, but due to a quirk in scheduling, we were still in the middle of our league’s end of season tournament. Given how the team had done in the regular season, coupled with their performance at the State Cup, the kids were understandably confident. Thankfully, the tendency of our end of season tournament to bring out the best in teams continued on, and the Storm faced some of their biggest challenges yet, having to survive two shoot-outs to finally win the league championship. It was a great experience for them, to bring them back down to earth and understand that if they wanted to continue to be successful, they had to keep working hard.

All 11 players returned for the Spring season, and they were excited to start playing again. I wanted to challenge them as much as I could while encouraging them to work hard and continue to improve, so I started handing out incentive patches. For the Spring 2007 season, the league chose to split the U10 division into Blue and White divisions to allow for more competitive matches. It was a great move, and the Storm suddenly realized things would be a lot tougher. Matches were decided by a couple of points instead of 6 or 7. As in any competitive sport, everyone wanted to be the ones who beat the undefeated team, which meant some very competitive and hard fought matches. But the kids worked VERY hard and in the end, finished their Spring season 8-0-0. Then they had probably the best experience of the entire year:

They lost.

And it wasn’t just any team they lost to. When the Storm first formed a year ago, many of the players had played on a U8 team called the All-Stars, which was coached by a good friend (I was an assistant). The hope was that a year later, the rest of the All-Stars would move up and join their friends on the Storm. But due to the move to small-sided 6v6 and the smaller rosters, plus the age oddity of the Storm, there wasn’t enough room. So the All-Stars moved up on their own and became the Fusion. Sure enough, in early May, the Storm faced the Fusion in our league’s tournament final with old teammates on both ends of the field. The Fusion played a fantastic match, countering everything the Storm could muster, and beat us handily.

This was probably one of the best experiences for The Storm. They were already a bit emotional, as they knew this was their last match ‘at home’ as a team. A storybook season was winding down, and they wanted to end it on a high note, but didn’t. They hadn’t lost much that year, and it was a good reminder for them. Many players were in tears after the match and I think it taught them some very valuable lessons, both that day, and hopefully later on (as we parents had to remind them more than once to be good sports to their friends from the Fusion in school the next week.)

The parents had already decided that since most of the Storm would age up, they needed to have some fun at the end of the year. Our uniforms had been discontinued, so Smithfield’s allowed us to retire them and we had them screened with a tribute to their successes from the previous year, with their names printed on the back. We gave up Memorial Day vacations and headed to Greensboro for the 2007 Wrangler/McDonald’s Tournament, and handed out the ‘new’ jerseys to them, which they really liked. Again, our scrappy coed team played against all boys teams, and went 1-1-1. The weather was gorgeous and the highlight for them was playing soccer barefoot on Bryan Park’s plush turf.

U10 Storm - Wrangler Tournament

[The Storm take a break at the 2007 Wrangler/McDonald's Tournament]

We considered calling it a season at that point, but the players and parents had such a good time in Greensboro, they decided to play one more time at the NC State Games in late June. At this point, the team had an added boost of confidence, as 8 of the 11 players (5 boys and 3 girls) had made travel teams for the upcoming Fall season. Joined by an old teammate and coach from their U8 days, they played five matches in fairly hot weather in the U10 Boys Recreational division, finishing in 4th place with a 2-3 record.

All told, the Storm played in 33 matches that year. I think the one regret the team had was that they never got a chance to play the Bulldogs again, who had beaten them in the Rec State Cup. They were at both the Wrangler Tournament and State Games, but were always in a different group. The Storm settled for advancing to the semifinals at the State Games by allowing one less goal than the Bulldogs had in group play.

I hope to coach youth soccer for a very long time, and know that there will be many memorable experiences with each team. But I also know that I’ll probably never have a team like the Storm again. Not measured in wins and losses, but in friends made, laughs shared, and lessons learned. The entire year was one of discovery and growing up, as the players grew from learning individual skills to putting them together and knowing the future held the unknown. The league that had started with them in U6 was growing up as well as more Rec players left to play travel, changing the face of Rec at the U10 age level.

As I noted at the beginning, I was very lucky to have this team as a coach and their success was more due to who ended up on the team through the years of team assignments dating back in U6, than it was due to who coached them. I definitely learned more as a coach from them that year than I ever could have taught them, and for that I thank them. The Storm parents were a fantastic group who believed in providing new and exciting experiences for them beyond a normal soccer season, and suffice to say the end of season party was an adventure. Combine a water slide, lots of water, and dirt, and we quickly had a mudfest. Oh the pictures the parents can show at their weddings…

So as the Storm dissipates, I appreciate you bearing with me as I meandered down memory lane. The Storm was a special group of kids and I wanted to give them a well deserved shout out. I hope they had as much fun as I did!