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Columbus United Soccer Club experiences growth


Adam Minichino



These are exciting times for the Columbus United Soccer Club. 


Not only are the club's teams gearing up for the Presidents Cup next month in Columbus, but it also is branching out and moving into the top division in the state. 


Dr. Tom Velek, the club's director of competitive soccer and a coach, said this week that Columbus United will hold tryouts for a Under-17 Division I boys team in June. The tryouts will be at 10 a.m. June 21 and at 3 p.m. June 22 at the Columbus Soccer Complex. The makeup date will be at 9 a.m. July 21. The registration is $10 for both sessions. Players are encouraged to attend both sessions. 


"For a lot of people, having a Division I team, playing on a Division I team, saying I am on a Division I team, is the goal," Velek said. "We have lost players to Division I teams in Starkville and Tupelo, which I don't think offer as much as we do, but they have the Division I tag. 


"I think it is an important step for these boys. I don't think it is right for everybody. I don't see this necessarily as we're going to have it at every level." 


Velek said Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority sees the Division I team as a "pilot program" and will gauge its success in determining if it wants to create more Division I teams for players in the area. Velek said Columbus United and CLRA want to make sure they don't move too quickly and create teams that could take away from the pool of recreational players and restrict Columbus teams from competing. 


"I hope the Division I team will be attractive to some of the players who have gone elsewhere and have found out those programs aren't as great as they said they are and to come back and play for us," Velek said.  


The Division I squad will compete at the highest level. Columbus United teams coached by Velek have had success as Division II teams, often competing in Division I tournaments, and have won two state championships and have made two trips to regional championships.  


The Division I team will play a competitive schedule that will feature trips to the Wolf River Classic in Memphis, Tenn.; the Mayors Cup College Showcase in Las Vegas; the Gator Classic in New Orleans; and the John Talley Showcase in Memphis. It also will participate in the state's Division I league play and in the State Cup tournament. 


"For the price tag and to have a chance to play in a couple of major regional showcases and a major national showcase, I don't see why any player who is serious about soccer would try out or player for any program other than ours," Velek said.  


Velek said a caveat of having a Division I team enables a city or an organization to bid on the Division I State Cup, a smaller and prestigious tournament. A city must have at least one Division I team to have a chance to play host to the event. 


The only wrinkle about the Division I team is it will have tryouts. Velek said the team will be open to players from the Greater Golden Triangle area. He said the goal in creating the team wasn't to ensure only Columbus players on Columbus United teams would have a chance to play Division I soccer. He said it was to give players from the area in that age group a chance to compete at the highest level.  


Columbus United kicked off the weekend Friday with its Friends and Family Days, which Velek said remains the state's largest and longest running (seven years) free soccer event. He said nearly 30 teams participated in the two-day event, which drew teams from Saltillo, Starkville, Caledonia, Meridian, Tupelo, and throughout the state to Cook Soccer Complex. 


That event and the Coaches Cup that was at the Columbus Soccer Complex last October helped the area prepare for the President's Cup, which will come to Columbus on May 23-25. The President's Cup is a state championship and a tournament that qualifies teams for the regional tournament in Decatur, Ala., later this year. Velek said more than 120 teams are expected for that event, which will bring nearly 4,000 players, family members, and friends to the area. 


The Coaches Cup is a recreational tournament that crowned champions in seven age groups for girls and boys. The Presidents Cup will be a significantly larger event. Velek said many of the hotels in Columbus and even some in Starkville already have been booked, so he anticipates a busy weekend that should have a financial impact on the city. 


"At least four of our major hotels already are sold out," Velek said. "We're going to be packed. I think the overflow is going to have to go to West Point and Starkville." 


Velek said tournament registration started earlier this month. As tournament director, he said he is working with the CLRA and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau to take care of all of the details because success in this event could help the city attract similar tournaments in the future. Velek said Columbus is the smallest city to play host to the Presidents Cup. 


"If we want to see the economic impact of a major tournament, this is the largest tournament in the state of Mississippi, we're going to see it in a month," Velek said. "I have been saying it for a while. I just hope our restaurants, our gas stations, our hotels are ready because we're going to have close to 3,500, and that is not counting locals from Columbus, Caledonia, Amory, Starkville who are not going to stay here, trying to find people to stay, eat, and shop. 


"From my perspective as the director, the challenge is having it at three locations: the downtown complex, at Cook, and at Columbus High (at the field closest to the high school). The real challenge as a community and as a tournament director is it is so spread out. Traffic is going to be a pain in the butt that weekend. Around Cook, it is going to be packed. Around the complex downtown, it is going to be packed. Highway 45 is going to be packed." 


Velek said the unknown variable is weather. He said the games must be played to qualify teams for the regionals, so bad weather tournament organizers to implement a contingency plan.  


Velek said Columbus United has teams in the regional qualifying age groups (U13-U17) that have a good chance to advance to the regional tournament. He said it would be the first time Columbus sent two teams to regionals and the third year in a row Columbus has sent a team to regionals. 


In addition, Velek said the Visitors Bureau has contracted with a sports vendor that will be on site at the Presidents Cup and will sell apparel and equipment. He said there also will be contests during the three-day event. 


For more information about the Division I U-17 team, contact Velek at [email protected], or by calling him at 386-7393. 


n In related news, Velek was pleased to report that the Columbus United Under-12 girls team won the silver medal at the Oxford April Ambush tournament. 


Columbus United defeated Greenwood 4-1, tied South Madison 2-2, beat Desoto County 4-1 in the semifinals, and lost to Oxford 5-1 in the finals.  


Against Greenwood, Alyvia Franks scored two goals and Reagan Greenhaw and Blair Ward each had one. Against South Madison, Franks and Taylor Pritchett scored goals before the match went to a shootout to win the bracket. Haven Tuggle made three saves in the shootout. Blair Ward, Franks, Kelly Bell, and Bree Younger scored in the shootout. Against Desoto County, Ward had a hat trick and Franks added a goal. Franks also scored against Oxford.   


Sheridan Williams and Lilly Barlow (forwards), Bethany McBride and Clara Allen (defenders), and Allie Corbett, Lizzy Howard, Taylor Phillips, and Taylor Foster also are part of the team. 


Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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