Who would have imagined that soccer would have become so popular in the Brainerd area?
Al Cottingham, president of the Lakes Area Youth Soccer Association, imagined it, along with several other members of the community.
"Soccer has been just a summer recreation program with the YMCA and the Baxter Recreation programs," said Cottingham. "A group of parents got together and decided they wanted their kids to play soccer at a higher level. They wanted to provide the kids with a more competitive level of play."
The program has been in existence for three years and already has seen a great increase in the number of participants.
As a first-year program, 40 youths were signed up and three teams were formed. Now, there are 180 youths and 10 teams.
"The program has grown mainly due to word of mouth," said Cottingham. "Otherwise, we take lists from the kids signed up for the fall rec program at the YMCA and in Baxter. We then send them fliers about our association. We also put fliers up in the schools to show kids what we're about."
In the first year, most youths involved were ages 13-14 and predominantly male. This year the age range has expanded from 9-18 with a 60/40 ratio of boys to girls.
LAYSA not only plays at different sites in the area, but different cities as well.
Teams travel to Crookston, Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, Bemidji, Little Falls, Grand Rapids and Akeley. Travel is usually within a two-hour drive.
Practice begins in mid-April and the season runs until the end of July.
Youths play a 10-game season with five games at home and five on the road. After the regular season, there are district playoffs followed by a state tournament.
The Baxter fields, which opened this spring, are the main site for the program. Other games are being played at Lake Region Christian School in Baxter and at Memorial Park in Brainerd. Between the 10 teams in the program, approximately 40 games have already been played.
Coaches of teams are volunteers. The officials however are not.
"Our referees are certified and do get paid," said Cottingham. "We have about 15 local referees that range from age 14 to age 50, and we're always looking for more."
Kirsten Anderson, a former Brainerd High School graduate and member of the 1998 inaugural Warrior girls' soccer team, is now an assistant coach in LAYSA.
"At this point, soccer isn't a part of all grades in school," said Anderson. "The LAYSA summer program does a good job of filling the gap and preparing kids for varsity competition. It's a lot of fun. The kids are having fun and I think that the program has really brought the community together.
"The program also allows for the kids to have jobs as we practice only a couple times a week and play on the weekends. They enjoy playing in the league, and still enjoy their summer."
Anderson is currently playing soccer for Concordia College in Moorhead.
"We are a part of the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association and they have really helped us get a start," Cottingham said. "The volunteers have also been very big for the program."
LAYSA also prepares future players for the high school level.
"It is really great for kids who are going on to play in high school," Cottingham said. "When our season ends, there is about three weeks until the high school program starts practice. With the competitiveness of our program, we are definitely a good feed-in to theirs."
Participant and volunteer numbers have grown and are projected to continue to grow in years to come.
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