STARKVILLE — “All right, you guys, everybody ready?” shouted Sarah Strickland, an assistant coach of the Mississippi State University soccer team, standing in the middle of the soccer field on the MSU campus, surrounded by hundreds of children with soccer balls. “Ready, set, go!”
And the kids were off, kicking the balls into nets, practicing for upcoming games and testing the skills they had acquired in the previous days.
Strickland and Andy Manners, another assistant MSU soccer coach, walked around and watched the kids, offering encouragement here and there.
The kids shot, dribbled, ran and passed in groups named for countries, including Chad, Chile, the U.S. and England.
“The kids all go crazy about … who gets to be England,” Strickland said, because Manners was from there; the kids couldn”t help noticing his accent.
It was one element of this year”s five-day youth soccer camp at MSU.
Most of the kids came from Jackson, Columbus and Starkville. Among them was Avery Cohen, 12, of Starkville, whose parents are Nelle and MSU Head Baseball Coach John Cohen. She was playing soccer for the first time, she said, and last week she had bought Adidas cleats just for the camp.
“I”ve gotten stronger at a lot of subjects — passing, shooting, juggling,” she said.
She ran up to a ball and kicked it toward a small net, but it went elsewhere. And so she had to get the ball. As she chased the ball, her ponytail bounced in several directions. Once she caught up to it, she sent it back to her teammates.
Abby Stricklin, 8, of Starkville, is a camp participant. Her parents, Anne and Scott Stricklin, said she was playing soccer when she was 3. But the games she”s been playing and the training she has been getting in the camp this week have been helping her improve, Abby said.
“I”ve learned how to pass it. … I”ve learned a lot,” she said.
With her teammates, Abby ran a relay race in the form of a triangle. Thirteen laps around the triangle later, it was time for a water break.
She walked across the field and saw kids who had come from far away to participate in the camp.
Donovan Smith, 7 1/2, goes to school in Colorado Springs, Colo. This week he”s been staying with his grandparents, Richard and Melanie Mullenax, in Starkville. After the camp ends, he said, he will go to Walt Disney World.
So far, he”s liked the camp a lot. It”s different. “We just used to play games, real games, at other camps,” said Donovan, who has played soccer for three years. But at the MSU camp, “First we have to play games; now we”re doing harder stuff.”
He was referring in particular to the dribbling exercises the coaches were asking the campers to do. Over a few days, he found his skills getting better. And since it”s such an important part of playing in regular games, it”s valuable training.
Another out-of-towner, Evan Butterworth, 10, had come from Lawrenceville, Ga., and was staying with relatives who lived in Mississippi, he said.
This was his first time playing soccer.
On the field, he wore Louisville slugger cleats — great for baseball, but just not right for soccer. Sometimes when he lifted up his feet, other campers noticed and made comments.
But they didn”t make fun of him, he said.
Or if they did, maybe he was too busy to notice, as he was intent on improving his soccer skills.
“They taught us how to use the inside of our foot, the outside of our foot and our toes,” he said, demonstrating with his right cleat and a soccer ball. “They taught us how to lift our foot up to the goal with the foot that you”re not kicking with, and it”ll help a little bit with the aim.”
The tip has helped him, he said.
When he goes back home, he said, he just might enroll in a kids” soccer league and play games at the park.
For Manners, his biggest concern for the campers was safety. “We want to provide a safe environment for the kids,” he said.
He said the organizers of the camp also want to make sure the kids have fun given their ages and, by extension, their social and psychological development. Kids under 6, for example, have been able to play games less demanding than soccer, like bowling and treasure hunts.
“You can call it soccer, you can call it what you want, but really it”s fun games,” he said. “There”s a lot of psychology that goes into the things that we do for the younger kids.”
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.