BANGOR, Maine — For several years, the growth rate for the Bangor Soccer Club spring program reportedly was averaging 8 to 10 percent.
Not this year. It’s up at twice that rate. Last year, there were about 780 boys and girls in prekindergarten through middle school age groups. This year that total has shot up to 930, an increase of about 20 percent.
“I think we are the largest single-sport organization in the area,” said club president Rod Towne.
The system the club has had to put into place to manage its growth has paid off.
“What’s really nice is that it’s well thought out and well run,” said Debbie Courtney of Bangor. “When word travels that you have a well-run organization, people come to it.”
Don Erb, the 11-year Bangor High boys assistant soccer coach who is also a volunteer coach for Bangor Soccer Club, and his wife, Kristi, have two children, Samantha, 7, and Griffin, 9, in the spring program.
He thinks the fact everyone is engaged at the same time during a game is the attraction for the children.
“It’s nonstop. That’s what kids want to do,” Erb said. “They keep coming back for more.”
Courtney and her husband, Jeff, have three children who have been or are involved in the spring program, which began its game schedule Sunday at the Union Street field complex.
“It’s amazing,” said 12-year-old Derek Courtney. “There are more and more kids every year.”
At 15, Justin Courtney is too old for the program now, but he played on the Bangor High junior varsity team last fall and hopes to make varsity next fall. He credits the spring program with giving him a strong start in the basics.
“They set the foundation for my soccer-playing career, and I’m sure they’ve done the same for all the kids who have gone through the program,” he said.
That soccer foundation was intentional, but not driven into the kids, because the club has a different view for the spring program.
“The big thing we focus on is fun,” said Towne.
The cost is $40 per person and scholarships are available so everyone who wants to play can.
“It’s a good value for as much soccer as you get,” said Courtney.
It’s a noncompetitive program in that game scores aren’t kept, putting less pressure on the participants. It’s designed to give children an introduction to the sport and allow returning players to stay sharp.
Some of their practice time is composed of drills and part of it is scrimmages. It can all be fun, though.
“We dribble around cones and shoot at the goalie,” said 9-year-old Garrett Courtney, who also likes to play goalkeeper.
The focus on fun has drawn in more participants, including many from outside Bangor.
“We’re not just Bangor, we’re Greater Bangor,” said Towne. “This program is offered to anyone in the area that wants to come.”
About a third come from outside Bangor, said Towne.
The increasing numbers actually have benefited all of the participants, Towne said.
“With our size, we’re able to offer boys and girls teams [for grades two to five] and age-appropriate teams,” said Towne. “It’s just so much more enjoyable for them.”
In total, Bangor Soccer Club has 94 teams, including 16 for pre-kindergarteners, 14 for those in kindergarten and 16 for first-graders. The second- and third-graders are combined as one group, with boys and girls divisions. The same applies to the fourth- and fifth-graders.
When they have games on Sunday, the parking lot overflows. The games are held on eight fields simultaneously from noon to 6 p.m. Fortunately, the Job Corps next door has given the club permission to use its parking area.
“I don’t know how they handle all the teams and the schedule,” said Erb. “The first games were last weekend and it was smooth sailing.”
The games continue every Sunday, except Memorial Day weekend, through June 10.
The addition of out-of-towners is a plus, according to Erb.
“My son plays with kids from Holden, Corinth and also Bangor,” he said. “He’s developing friendships he wouldn’t normally be able to.”
Erb takes a different approach when coaching young kids compared with his high school team.
“At the [Bangor Soccer Club] coaches’ meeting, they stressed, ‘We want them to come back, we want to make it fun and we want to do it without hurting other kids’ feelings,’” said Erb.
That’s fine with him.
“[The kids] have fun, they get better and they work hard,” Erb said. “I think that’s what all coaches want.”
While many of the coaches, especially at the youngest level, are parents, according to Towne, others are volunteers. The referees do get paid.
“I try to help by getting my [high school] kids to volunteer or help coach,” said Erb. “They have a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm.”
Thrown into this mix are the fall travel tryouts scheduled for May 12 and May 19 at the Doughty School on Fifth Street. Registration, which can be done online at www.bangorsoccerclub.org, must be completed before midnight Sunday. The times for each age-group session also are there.
“We have to do tryouts before kids go on vacation,” said Towne. “That requires us to be very early.”
But for now, Towne is relishing the spring. The success of the program is easily found when he goes to the practices and games.
“All I hear,” he said, “is the sound of laughing children.”