June 6, 2010 12:24:00 AM
Thomas Velek can''t help but smile.
In five days, Velek and the rest of the world will watch as the World Cup begins in South Africa. The United States Men''s National Team will play England in its first game Saturday in what it hopes will be a month filled with excitement.
Velek, who is a professor at the Mississippi University for Women, has another reason to be proud as the world''s biggest sporting event begins. As competitive director for the Columbus United Soccer Club, Velek can look back with pride at how Columbus teams fared in the third year of competitive soccer in the city and in the club''s second season.
The highlight of the season was the Columbus United Under-12 boys team advancing to the semifinals of the state''s President''s Cup, the Division II championships held every May.
"For years we would go there and not win a match," Velek said. "We said this year that we had a real good chance to go to the President''s Cup and not just win a match, but to challenge for a title. We had a team break through and get to the semifinals. Things like that give players and coaches confident in the program and help them believe they can compete with anybody."
The showing of the U-12 boys team was just another sign Columbus United continues to grow. The club started with an U-10 team for boys and girls and a U-12 girls team and has grown to eight teams in five age groups. This season, Columbus United offered boys and girls teams in U-10, U-12, and U-19. It also had a U-14 girls team and a U-16 boys team.
As one of the few clubs in the state to provide teams up to the U-19 level, Velek feels it is critical to offer players an opportunity to continue to play within a club so they can enhance their skills and earn chances to keep playing soccer in college.
Velek also wants the coaches in Columbus United to improve. Three years ago, he said there weren''t any coaches with a ''D'' license, a professional license coaches earn after taking part in a six-day diploma course that includes written, oral, and field work. This season, five coaches -- Jimmy Robertson, Velek, Roger Shilling, Chuck Yarborough, Don Whitman, and Mori Mims -- had a ''D'' coaching license. Mims and Velek also have regional goalkeeper coaching diplomas.
Velek said the club''s goal is to have all of its coaches have at least an ''E'' license, the level before ''D'', to coach in the club.
Player development also continues at a rapid rate. Last year, two players went to the Olympic Development Program Academy Camp. This year, 11 players are attending. Columbus United players also are attracting opportunities that would have been difficult to garner without the club. For example, Avery Velek was invited to train this month with Tynecastle Futbol Club, the youth team of the Heart of Midlothian Futbol Club, one of two professional teams in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The combination of the coaching and player development has translated into results on the field. Teams from Columbus had won only one match at the President''s Cup, but this season the Columbus United U-12 girls team went 2-1, the U-10 boys team went 1-1-1 in the Classic Division, and the U-12 boys recorded a first for Columbus.
The U-12 boys also won the Tupelo Spring Classic tournament, the first tournament championship for a boys team in a decade, and the DIII Northern District Championship, the first time a U-12 boys team from Lowndes County had won the district championship. The boys, who went 24-5-3, advanced to state competition and won two matches before losing to Madison, the eventual state champion Madison.
The U-12 girls team finished third at the district tournament and finished 1-2 at the state tournament. Last fall, the team won the Coaches Cup DIII tournament.
Future teams figure to be strong, too. Columbus United and the Columbus Lowndes Recreation Authority worked together this past year in a U-8 Development Program for boys and girls. Velek hopes all of those accomplishments are just the beginning of the success Columbus United teams can bring to the Golden Triangle.
"What I said two years ago was I wanted us to dream big," Velek said. "I wanted us to use another sports metaphor and swing for the fences. For too long we have said in Columbus that we''re not Jackson, we''re not Memphis, we''re not Gulfport, and that we can''t have a club and we can''t compete. But I wanted us to think big and to say we''re going to have one of the best clubs in the region, so how do we do that? We want to focus on player development, we want to provide an organization for every player to become a better player and to play at the highest level, and we want to stress coaching development. If we do all three of those things, we can make programs attractive to players so they keep playing in our program and keep them from going to an outside program."
Richard Stubbs, past president of the Starkville Soccer Association, has known Velek for years and has coached against him. He said he has seen Columbus'' soccer program grow significantly in a short time.
"It is nice to have healthy competition this close to home because we never used to think of Columbus," Stubbs said. "Back to when I coached boys up to U-16 six years ago, we went to Columbus and just destroyed teams. Now it is a very healthy competition. I don''t know if we will get our butts whupped or if they will get their butts whupped."
Stubbs sees Columbus United building toward bigger things. He said the development of a new soccer facility at Burns Bottom, which is expected to include multiple fields for all age groups, should strengthen Columbus'' youth soccer program.
Velek hopes to help resolve several soccer specific issues with the designs for the facility at Burns Bottom. That is just one area he hopes Columbus United can grow. He said the decision to have coaches have at least ''E'' licenses shows it wants to keep building and that it has a vision for the future. He said his next goal is to get more minority children or children from low-income families to participate in soccer. He hopes his work as state director of Soccer Across America will help provide more opportunities for children in Columbus and the state of Mississippi to play soccer.
n Soccer players in the Columbus area are reminded that Monday Night Football will hold its first session from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday at the Cook Soccer Fields located across the street from Heritage Academy. No experience is necessary to participate. Coaches will be at the fields to help players with skill work, or players are free to organize and to play with teams.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.