HAMPDEN, Maine — Teach the basics when they’re young, add skills as they get older and keep them challenged.
That was the philosophy of MJ Ball when he and Patsy Oversmith started coaching a Bronco Travel Club Under-8 boys soccer team in 2005.
By the end of the U-14 season in November, that system had led the club to four straight state championships covering three age divisions. It’s a feat that can never be matched since Soccer Maine, the state affiliate for U.S. Youth Soccer, amended the rules governing participation in age-group competition.
Bronco Travel won the U-12 state title in 2008 without a 12-year-old on the squad. By the next season, Soccer Maine amended the rules so a team had to have at least 50 percent of its players be age-appropriate for the division.
In 2009, the team won the U-12 title again, followed by U-13 in 2010 and U-14 this year.
And it was almost literally the same team each year.
Fourteen of the 17 players on this year’s championship team played together since 2005.
“We had maybe one or two kids each year who moved to another sport or out of town,” said Ball.
“They all seemed to have a passion for it,” said Oversmith.
“We all became really good friends,” said 14-year-old Paxton Oversmith, Patsy’s son and one of the 14.
Patsy Oversmith, who has been president of Bronco Travel since ’05, agreed with how tight the players became.
“I like to say I have 17 boys,” she said.
Most of the players are from Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport. There is one each from Ellsworth and Orono because they don’t have U-14 teams, and another is from Orrington.
This year’s team members are Jackson Gilmore, Dagan Berenyi, Nick Chasse, Jacob Bailey, Kyle Townsend, Sean McGuire, Jordan Dysart, Noah Dery, Brandon Chasse, Tyler Arbo, Lukas Firestone, Nicholas Gilpin, Zach Boss, Paxton Oversmith, Ryan Gideon, Jake Koffman and Drew Gilmore. All but Dery, Bailey and Firestone played every year.
Ball’s idea to play up an age group started early and he had to get the parents on board. There were some concerns about 8-year-olds playing against older kids.
“The size difference was the biggest concern,” said Patsy Oversmith, who also coaches for Black Bear United and at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden. “But the boys, it didn’t faze them one bit.”
That first year, there were two U-8 teams with the second coached by Gerry Chasse. In 2006 they merged into one team.
Ball, who is also a director of Black Bear United, a year-round soccer program, found that with their skill level, his players more than held their own against older players.
There were no state titles in the early years because those tournaments don’t begin until U-12 play.
The first title will be forever etched in Paxton Oversmith’s memory.
“We’d never really experienced anything like that before,” he said. “I scored the winning goal and I was really happy. It was in double overtime.”
The challenge then, said Ball, was doing it again.
“It’s hard to be No. 1,” said Ball. “It’s even harder to stay No. 1. They learned early on they had to put their best effort in.”
And they did.
“In four years of league play, they were never beaten,” said Ball. “They won every state title, every tournament, every league game.
“And they did it by playing the right way.”
That was part of the learning process Ball set up.
“They learned humility, to win with class, and sportsmanship,” Ball said. “They learned they have to work for what they get, they have to earn things in life.”
“Hard work pays off,” he added. “It might not be instant, but if you work hard, good things happen.”
It wasn’t all work, though.
“We still have a blast. We have a lot of fun,” said Ball.
One of Paxton Oversmith’s fondest memories has nothing to do with any of the sanctioned games.
“We went to Old Orchard Beach [for a tournament] and hung out at the beach,” he said. “We played beach soccer.”
Oversmith and Drew Gilmore played JV soccer for Hampden Academy this fall in addition to Bronco Travel.
Paxton has seen one major difference.
“In high school, there’s more [aggressive play],” he said. But the skills he learned stood him in good stead.
“Playing high school soccer, being young wasn’t that difficult,” said Paxton Oversmith. “I could do the moves, the chips, bend the ball.
“It would amaze the coaches. It was pretty cool.”
Next fall, he’ll be seeing most of the same faces again as they also try out at Hampden.
“This is what bodes well for Hampden Academy,” said Ball. “They should make an immediate impact. As juniors and seniors, they should be unstoppable.”