Thunder rolls, carving out a niche for travel-team play

Winner: Howard's `other' sizable youth soccer organization has grown steadily over the past decade.

Howard At Play

May 02, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Can you hear it? The Thunder is getting louder.

The Soccer Association of Western Howard County was formed in 1991 with one travel team for boys under age 10. But the club - Howard's "other" sizable youth soccer organization - grew steadily throughout the decade and changed names, taking on the name Thunder Soccer Club five years ago.

Things really began to heat up about three years ago, though, when the club had grown to 17 age-group teams. Several factors combined to spark growth .

Today, the Thunder is fielding 45 to 50 travel teams, depending on whether it is the fall or spring season. It has boys and girls programs and has become a "player" in the context of Howard County and Maryland youth soccer.

With about 800 players, the Thunder still is considerably smaller than the older Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County, which claims some 6,500 youth players but also has a sizable recreation-level program, in addition to boys and girls travel teams. Travel teams tend to be for more serious, advanced players, compared with recreation teams, where there is more instruction and relatively less pressure to win.

The Thunder was not formed to compete against the Columbia organization, said club President Dave Gould and other club leaders. Instead, the Thunder was trying for its own niche, which is travel play. A separate youth organization, with more players, conducts leagues at the introductory and recreation-levels of play in the western county.

"The philosophy that we've always stuck with, and our mission, is to put the players first," said Gould. "We establish and maintain a youth soccer environment that provides to young people the ability to grow [through] competition. It lets players and coaches grow."

Several factors have contributed to the club's succuss. The rapid growth of housing in the western section of the county has brought many more children to land that once was rural.

The Thunder also has worked at reaching out into the community in different ways to let children interested in soccer know about the club.

Tony Corbett, the Thunder's coaching adviser, said the club has what it calls "micro-soccer" programs for 5- and 6-year-olds and created a small league for 7- and 8-year-olds. This league does not keep game scores, and it competes with four-player teams and no goalies - all features that Corbett said can help young children develop the basic skills of the game.

Corbett said the club had about 250 children when he came aboard 2 1/2 years ago. Of today's 800 youth players, more than half are girls.

"We've added younger teams and reached out for more players," Corbett said. "We've done several things ... helping to bring attention to the club and help it grow."

The Thunder boys teams compete in the National Capital Soccer League, as do travel teams from SAC-HC. The Thunder girls compete in the Washington Area Girls Soccer league. Both leagues, which include Maryland and Northern Virginia clubs, are considered to be among the most competitive youth soccer organizations in the nation.

The rapid increase of the Thunder girls program has been a big factor in the club's overall growth. Thunder under-14, under-15 and under-18 girls teams have won early games this spring and have reached the semifinals of the Maryland State Cup tournament in early June.

Winners in each age group advance to regional play in late June in Rhode Island, with winners there competing for a national championship with winners from other U.S. Youth Soccer Association regions across the United States.

Gould said that the success of the U.S. women's national team proved to be a huge help to the girls program here.

"It's something kind of new to the girls, and it's growing and developing," Gould said. "The girls' side of our program is probably stronger at this time, success-wise."

Club officials have worked hard at recruiting and retaining good coaches. Coaches who understand how to teach the game and work with kids are keys to the program's success, say its leaders.

"Parents come and go, but coaches - they're bread and butter," Corbett said.

"If you can get proper coaching ... it ultimately pays," agreed club Vice President Mike Hasty, who formed the club's third team and has been with the Thunder about 10 years. "It's something that [players] remember," he said.

Gould also hopes that Thunder members will remember getting a new place to play. The club has been pushing with other Howard County amateur sports organizations to get more fields developed and built at Western Regional Park, at Carrs Mill Road and Route 97 in Glenwood.

The county Department of Recreation and Parks is awaiting a County Council vote on budget plans to install synthetic turf and lights on two of the new park's multipurpose fields - those compatible with football, soccer and lacrosse.

And now, about 13 years after starting, the Thunder is doing things the same way it always has - simply trying to field good travel teams to teach kids a good way to play soccer.

"We're not trying to be anybody but ourselves," Hasty said. "I think we have an identity there."

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