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Program gives children an early goal in soccer

The soccer coach at East Lake High School is helping his players educate younger kids in the ways of the game.

By EILEEN SCHULTE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2000


EAST LAKE- In many East Lake homes, there dwell future high school soccer stars, would-be Eagles testing grassy fields in size 4 Nike youth cleats and miniature shin guards.

They may be toddlers or mere grade-schoolers, but East Lake High School soccer coach Billy Gunther knows that in a decade or so, these kids will be taller and stronger, and he will evaluate them as they run, pass and shoot.

And when he sees them again, he wants them to know what they are doing.

Earlier this year Gunther, 39, decided to encourage his current players to coach his future players. The teenagers would learn to coach while polishing their own skills, and the younger children would learn the game.

"This is a pioneer program," said Donna Jackson, a soccer mom who, along with Marc Daubar, 18, a student and YMCA employee, helped Gunther develop his idea. The YMCA of North Pinellas is sponsoring the program.

Although he can't say for sure, Bob Hosack, director of extracurricular student activities for Pinellas schools said Jackson may be right.

"It's very possible this is the only program

of its kind in Pinellas County," Hosack said.

Gunther, who has run soccer camps for 20

years, towers over the children and wears sunglasses so black that it's impossible to tell whether he approves or disapproves of what he sees. But Gunther is comfortable among these kids. His own soccer career started on a similar field in Long Island, N.Y. From there, he became a college player briefly courted by professional teams until injuries finished his playing career by age 23. Both of his ankles were shattered from years of hard play, and his back had a herniated disc.

"I spent more time rehabbing and recovering from pain. It wasn't worth it," Gunther said.

Forced to choose a less physically demanding job, Gunther became a high school teacher in Las Vegas, then at East Lake High.

He brought his teenage coaches to the YMCA of North Pinellas this spring, where they set up a small makeshift soccer field on a patch of grass behind the tennis courts. There they taught 3- to 5-year-olds in a five-week camp.

The teens giggle when they talk about the first clinics. They said they had as much fun as the tots they were teaching.

A boy named Dustin refused to wear his name tag, so, in a sneaky move, the teens slapped it on his back without his knowledge. Meanwhile, Jake and Blake battled it out for supremacy. And Ryan cried when he heard Gunther's voice booming over the field.

A lot of kids would run away, making the coaches chase them and carry them back.

Of course, some just sat on the ball. Others would run up the field, run down the field and then run the wrong way.

"When they were thirsty, they ran to their mothers," said Rob Hallen, a teen coach.

After coaching the toddlers, Gunther and his teenage coaches began a similar program for elementary school students. The first clinic of that program was held at Brooker Creek Elementary on May 18 and drew 41 children. A clinic at Cypress Woods Elementary School the following week drew more than 70, Gunther said.

At the Brooker Creek clinic, the kids, mostly around 9 years old, squinted at Gunther while his teen coaches listened. Then they broke into groups.

"Danny! Grab a spot," Gunther yelled. "Guys, we're gonna start out juggling. Do you know what juggling is?"

"Yeah," the kids said.

"It's the most important skill in the world," Gunther yelled. "Just keep the ball in the air. Nice and easy, keep that toe out. Hey, what's your name?"

In the drill, the kids were allowed to keep the ball in the air using only their feet, knees and thighs. They could not catch it with their hands.

"I just got a little angry," one boy said after stunning everyone by kicking his ball at least 30 feet in the air, over a nearby backstop.

Gunther moved between the groups, shouting instructions.

Hallen, 15-year-old Brendan Kelley and the other coaches said already they had their favorite players and favorite stories.

"That's James. He's in the second grade," Kelley said about one of the students. "He's real small. Ever see that movie, Rudy? Just like him, he keeps trying. While he was playing a game, a kid stole his ball, and he got him in a head lock and tackled him to the ground."

When the players returned to the field after a water break, one little boy stayed behind, sitting on a sidewalk. While the other kids looked pink, he looked pale, apparently overcome by the heat.

Jackson's maternal instinct kicked into overdrive.

"Do you want me to call your mommy?" she asked him.

"Yes," he answered in a small voice.

"Okay, now sit in the shade and, here, drink some water," Jackson said while picking up her cell phone. The mother wasn't home. "We'll get you an ice pack."

Back on the field, Kelley was watching Sterling Bash, 7, and Trey Sherman, 6, kick a ball back and forth.

Kelley seemed proud of his young charges.

"They listen a lot better than I thought they would," Kelley said.

After a few minutes, the kids thundered back to the water cooler. With the clinic over and the pressure off, Tony Rosso, 17, last season's East Lake High soccer team captain, played a game of keep away with the kids in the shade of a Brooker Creek building.

He was holding a lemon-colored freezy pop in front of them, and when they'd jump for it, he'd pull it out of their reach..

A long kick away, Jennifer Gordon-Martin watched the clinic from under the lone tree near the field.

Gordon-Martin, held her 8-month-old son Jelani and watched her other son, Jared, 6. She comes from a serious soccer family. She is a former coach, and she said her husband was member of a Jamaican national champion team. Jared wants to follow in his father's footsteps, and Gordon-Martin liked what she saw.

"He wants to be competitive. He loves to play matches," she said. "Soccer is a must in Jamaica. It is not offered enough in elementary schools (here). We've been searching for a program. To see this, it's very encouraging."

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