August 14, 2012 10:35:10 PM
Tom Velek has seen soccer make incredible progress in Columbus.
In just five years, the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority's Columbus United program has grown from neophyte to state champion.
As he prepares to move into his new role as vice president for Division II soccer in the Mississippi Soccer Association in September, Velek wants to find new ways to help soccer continue to grow in Columbus.
"We have had real successes, and I think it is time to go back and look at a question we kind of have kicked down the road a little bit, which is what do we do to increase numbers overall?" Velek said. "When we increase numbers overall, that is going to be good for the program, for his schools, and for everybody."
With the unveiling of the new soccer complex at Burns Bottom set to take place for the 2012 fall season, Velek is anxious to identify ways to help CLRA's enrollment, which has remained consistent at 600 players, match the growth in cities like Meridian and Tupelo and across the state.
In May, the Columbus United Under-14 boys soccer team won the MSA Division III State Championship in Meridian. It was the first time a team from Lowndes County won the U-14 boys, and it was only the third championship for a CLRA team.
While many of the players on that team will continue to play into older age groups, Velek said retention is key in building a bigger pool of players in Columbus. He said it is imperative that coaches continue to be trained to keep the game fun for younger players to they don't see soccer as a job. The more players who see the game is fun, he said, the easier it will be able to keep them involved so they can learn the finer points of the game.
"We're trying to emphasize soccer is a sport for everybody," Velek said. "In particular, I think there are two demographics we don't do a good job reaching out to: the African-American community and the Hispanic community. We're not necessarily sure why there is a disconnect."
CLRA Director of Programs Greg Lewis said CLRA is working on finding ways to make it easier financially for families in Columbus to get involved with soccer. The fee to register children ages 4-16 for the upcoming soccer season is $50. Parents can register their children online at www.clra.net, or at the Propst Park office through Saturday. He said there are plenty of other ways CLRA will work in the community to help educate parents and players about soccer to help increase awareness.
"The biggest thing we want to do is make sure we introduce people to soccer who may not have been involved in soccer," Lewis said. "Tom is probably going to come to some of our community centers and we're probably going to hold more clinics, more things to get people involved in soccer and to let them know it is here and that it, too, can help pay for college. We're trying to open it up to where more people, more cultures can be introduced to the sport and we can bring more kids into the sport."
Velek would love to see the number of girls in the CLRA soccer program increase, too. Whether it's boys or girls, Velek said new and old players alike will have a great new facility to play on later this year. He feels that will be an added selling point for helping to grow the pool of players in Columbus.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.