Last week, Sports on the Hill, nee’ Soccer on the Hill, held the first-ever volunteers and coaches recognition dinner in its 25-year history. As a newbie coach of a U-13 co-ed soccer team with the league, I sat quietly at the dinner and listened as the history of the league and those who make it was spun out before me. Before listening to their stories, told one after another as if to emphasize and aggrandize each previous, my perspective of the organization was pretty microscopic and limited to soccer. I met my thirteen players and their parents twice weekly — once for practice, once for a game. They would run around and kick the soccer ball, I would yell in encouragement and instruction, then we would all go home. But the people who make Sports on the Hill a great place for DC kids to learn and love sports, do what I do times one hundred, and have been doing it since I was in diapers.
One of the first things I did when I first moved to DC was search for a sports league where I could coach soccer. Coaching, in a relaxed sense of the word, was something I had been doing pretty much since I was old enough to make 5-year-old peewees take me somewhat seriously. Without question I needed to connect to the community somehow, and I needed to be around organized sports — a need fostered by almost 20 years of incessant practices, games and other sport-related activities. At first though, I struggled to find an organization that would both accept me–as a flawed and comparatively inexperienced coach–and be acceptable–an environment that was more learning and fun, less competition and scholarship-seeking. Basically I was looking for a re-incarnation of Eastwood Youth Soccer, in Syracuse New York, the somewhat underfunded, haphazard but dedicated league that had given me my start.
Early searches quickly turned up the Stoddert League, a streamlined organization that supports 5,000-some soccer players of all ages. Really legit and probably great for development, if you’re the type of kid who is really serious (or who is being told by your parents that you need to be really serious). When they asked me for my soccer resume and linked me to the multi-step coaching certification process, well, I balked. Frankly, I was intimidated by the whole feel and the fact that all the fields pretty much required me driving there (sans car) didn’t help.
Then, my roommate forwarded me a blog post about pick-up soccer, and in the comments someone was calling for coaches for a local rec league, Sports on the Hill. After a few interactions with then-commissioner Keith Murphy, it was clear that SOTH was a great fit. Now, don’t get it twisted: SOTH is organized, it has a sense of purpose and that purpose is to get kids active and involved in sports, having fun and making friends. Their interest lies in building a community where the otherwise transient young people grow up and stay to raise kids who will then play Babe Ruth baseball and flag football. It’s community building, and part of that is an appreciable trust of a one-time varsity soccer player with enthusiasm and free time.
Back to the volunteers and their stories. Part of the evening’s schedule was hearing from two former SOTH players who are now about my age or a couple years younger. They spoke about the impact the league had on them, how it allowed them to try out different sports, getting good at the ones they had talent for, having fun in the ones they sucked at; how they made some of their best friends in SOTH; how their coaches had an impact on them. One of them talked about how the league gave him his first job — as a referee — and reminisced about how his terrible calls got coaches riled, but more often than not, they cut him a lot of slack.
I sat there, nodding away, sort of entranced and probably looking like a fool. But I had just realized that SOTH is for kids in the district what Eastwood Youth Soccer was for me. My dad and fellow moms and dads organized signups, did a draft, lined the fields, set up goals and ran the concession stand. And I was right there with him, every Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m., an ungodly hour. I sold donuts and held rope while he lined fields. I reffed terribly and had other people’s dads yell at me, then I reffed well and was put in charge of other refs. And I played, mostly elbow-to-elbow with my brother and other boys my age, until I was too old and moved on to travel leagues and varsity letters.
My dad continued to coach without me, just as each of the SOTH veterans did. Their kids grew up long ago, some of them have grand-kids who could play. But still, they devote their time coaching, reffing, organizing, scheduling, recruiting green coaches like me. And because of their hard work, Soccer on the Hill has grown to include many more sports for almost every age group. Besides soccer, there’s basketball, softball, baseball, paddling, wrestling, roller hockey, track & field, tennis, lacrosse and flag football. Hundreds of kids play, with numbers increasing by the season. Undoubtedly, some of them grow up to play in high school and college. But mostly, they get exercise, have a good time, learn the game and the lessons that go along with sports. Because as both I and the SOTH people know well, youth sports isn’t about winning, not really. Its about the hundred other little lessons in cooperation, teamwork and determination that you get along the way.
(Sport on the Hill is always looking for volunteers. If you’re interested in getting involved, e-mail league president Larry Kaufer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or vice-president Mike Godec at email@example.com)