Sheila and I returned to Prince George this afternoon, having spent the last few days visiting in Quesnel home to my mom, dad, older sister, Sheila's dad, sister, brother-in-law, 2 nephews, 2 neices and her nanny (Grandma) as well as numerous cousins and other relatives. Sheila had been visiting with Jasmine and Asher since Saturday and I had been in Quesnel since Tuesday. While the only plans we had really made was a trip out to the ski hill, the visit turned out to be quite eventful.
After arriving at mom and pop's house Tuesday afternoon and getting greeted by Asher with a huge "DADDY!" and the corresponding hug, I recieved an invite from my dad to attend his Special Olympics soccer practice that evening as a "guest coach". My dad is heavily involved in the organization, as he runs the thing with my mom. He also wears a number of coaching hats, curling, bowling, track and field, honestly I am unsure of just how many sports he is directly or indirectly involved in. Soccer though, is his pride and joy.
My dad has coached a soccer team in one form or another for over 30 years. Before I was born he began volunteering with Quesnel Youth Soccer, and at his peak he was coaching my team, my sister's team, my brother's team and at least one rep team either mine or my brother's. As we got older and my sister and I were no longer involved in youth soccer, my dad moved on to coach the Correlieu high school team, featuring my brother. Coaching soccer in Quesnel can be a thankless job. My dad has never been in it for the accolades, or the team trophies. It's difficult because Quesnel is a small town with a small player pool. Soccer is not the most popular sport in Quesnel with the athletic kids. Hockey is king, and soccer is more like the court jester. Once in a while a particularly talented age group comes along and a trip to the provincial championships make occur, but being competitive at these events is challenging at best. My dad has been involved with the Special Olympics soccer program for 6-7 years I think. If memory serves, he started the program. The team as a whole has improved considerably, and their yearly trip to a tournament in the Lower Mainland has seen some significant successes. Last year, they did very well and managed to qualify for this year's B.C. Summer Games in the Lower Mainland.
I arrived at practice with Asher, and the athletes were already warming up. Asher got set up with Grandma on the bleachers while I joined the practice. Plenty of jogging, followed by stretching, then the real work began. There were about 16 athletes at the practice, and they make up two teams of different skill levels. It is likely a difficult task for my dad to find drills and skill development activities that all are capable of doing, and can challenge the various levels that the athletes are at. There was no easing into the practice. Everyone was asked to line up on the goal line, and we ran a series of windsprints. Many, including myself were already winded, but we moved right into a series of ball control and passing drills. I worked with a trio of guys on quickly making return passes, even tossing in some headers back to the original passer. The practice concluded with some work on delivering crossing balls while being pressured by a defender, then a short but intense 4 on 4 scrimmage. I have had the chance to see these same players play almost every year as I will referee their games whenever I get the chance. I knew that the guys were capable of playing decent soccer, but I walked off the field Tuesday mightily impressed. One of the athletes threaded a beautiful pass threw two defenders leading to a great chance to score on the mediocre goaltender (me). There was a series of passes during the scrimmage with little wasted time, as the guys tossed the ball around in an umbrella formation, leading to plenty of open space and another quality scoring chance. All of the athletes took the practice quite seriously and it was good to see. My dad has done a solid job impressing on the athletes that while the idea of playing soccer is to have fun, you are also there to be competitive, get better and to win games.
Throughout the rest of my visit, the topic of the soccer team came up a number of other times. I gave some suggestions to my dad about ways they could continue to improve in advance of the Summer Games, and while he was a little skeptical, I believe that a handful of his players could compete in the local mixed league. These guys aren't just good Special Olympics soccer players, they are good soccer players. Period.