The main focus on the proposed sportsplex in Columbia has been on youth baseball and softball. Certainly those are sports with major participation and talent locally, and there’s an increasing potential for hosting travel tournaments. So it makes sense to have a first-class facility for them.
At the same time, soccer fields would also be part of the plan, and there’s perhaps an even greater need. There are at least dedicated youth baseball fields at both the private Dean Griner league and the city-run Duckworth Park league, but the Columbia Rotary Club’s soccer program has to play in the outfield of the softball fields at the Columbia Water Park. It’s not an ideal situation and makes it difficult to hold practices or make up games.
Jordan Whittington, a past president of the Rotary Club who has been closely involved with the soccer program over the past several years, points out that soccer is the country’s fastest-growing sport and that the local program has proven to be a big draw: About 370 children between 3 and 13 have played each of the past two years. Many of them come from outside Marion County, particularly Walthall County. There are more than 30 teams.
The Rotary Club (of which I am also a member) has sponsored the soccer league for more than four decades, making Columbia one of the earliest Mississippi communities to have the sport. That leadership of providing positive activities for youth is something the club takes pride in as fitting its motto of “service above self.”
Yet it’s an all-volunteer organization made up of busy business people who are stretched thin to run a league with the time and resources they have. It takes a lot of hours and preparation to coordinate something like that.
Whittington shared some frequently asked questions he gets from parents and coaches. I’m sharing the questions along with the responses he provided. They illustrate some of the issues that could be improved with a sportsplex.
Q: When and where can we practice?
A: “Unfortunately there are no designated fields or times for the coaches and players to practice on. Typically coaches look for an unoccupied patch of green grass wherever they can find it. Examples include green space at the water park (not fields since they must be rented for use), local church softball fields or areas at the Businessplex (formerly Training School).”
Q: Our game was rained out. Can we make it up?
A: “Trying to fit 30-plus teams onto a seven-week schedule leaves no time for games to be made up in the event of bad weather. If the rains do come, games have to be cancelled and the coaches and players lose that playing time that they have paid for.”
Q: Our daughter would like to play but she is concerned about playing with rougher boys. Is there an all-girls option?
A: “At this point, girls and boys play on the same teams at all ages. While this is not ideal, it is necessary due to the lack of playing fields. As it is, we divide two softball fields into three soccer fields. There is no additional room to add fields and playing areas. Dividing boys and girls would require additional teams to be made and would require additional fields to play on. The current playing area simply does not allow for this expansion.”
Clearly, youth would benefit from dedicated soccer fields at a public complex. That would also help create a feeder program for the Columbia High School soccer team that began last year.
Whittington also points out that local community colleges offer soccer scholarships and that most youth soccer programs also have a spring league. The Rotary league is only held in the fall because of the constraints already mentioned.
As the vote approaches Monday for a 3 percent tax on dining and lodging in Columbia that would fund construction of a sportsplex, it’s worth remembering those 370 young soccer players.
Providing them suitable playing fields would yield positive long-term benefits for both them and the community.
Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at email@example.com or (601) 736-2611.