By MARK W. DEBENHAM
BIXBY FUTBALL CLUB: Bixby Highlanders F.C. ’97 Boys White practice with Coach Sam Deloache at Broken Arrow’s Haikey Creek Park.
MARK W. DEBENHAM for GTR Newspapers
As referees whistle the beginning of soccer matches across Green Country, they provide fans with a signal that soccer continues to thrive in northeastern Oklahoma. Several Tulsa-area clubs are considered among the most progressive and competitive in the nation and the grass-roots development of the next generation of soccer stars continues to provide opportunities to young athletes and the families, volunteers and coaches that support them. Be it a weekday, weekend or more-often a combination of both, hometown players of all ages have been able to excel on local soccer fields as well as at complexes both regionally and nationally.
Sandy Richardson works as office registrar for the Green Country Soccer Association, an organization composed of 32 soccer clubs that provides a league structure for over 16,000 players in northeastern Oklahoma.
“We try to provide different levels of play with the smallest being the under six (years old) who don’t play with any score and don’t have any referees, all the way up through the Oklahoma Premier League which is done at the state level but has Green Country teams competing in it,” says Richardson.
Charlie Mitchell, coaching director for Bixby Highlanders Futball Club and a former Tulsa Roughneck, believes that the reason local soccer is so competitive could be laid down to Tulsa’s soccer past.
“The most successful youth soccer programs all stem from towns that had professional teams in the towns previously,” says Mitchell. “Soccer is just as competitive in Tulsa as it is in much larger places such as Dallas, because former players have stayed around and got involved in coaching.”
The local soccer scene in the Tulsa-metro area has become much more than a game of two halves. In fact it takes a whole network of coaches, parents and volunteers to keep the game ticking over.
“None of the youth soccer would survive without the volunteers and parents. The soccer moms and soccer dads have become huge necessities and they’re not appreciated enough,” says Mitchell.
Richardson is also aware of the importance the non-athletes bring to the game.
“GCSA doesn’t exist apart from the memberships and the volunteers who run the organization. It is the foundation of what we do. It doesn’t happen without the volunteers,” she says.
One such volunteer is Pam Glenn, manager of Tulsa Thunder 92 Boys Italy, whose responsibilities include keeping the players informed of the team schedule as well as completing the paperwork involved in ensuring player registration. She also has a son that plays on the team.
“I love the kids on the team, they’re great boys and it’s fun to be a part of it,” she says. “I love soccer and when I leave the games I am happy that we have a coach that provides the boys with a lot of leadership.”
With such a solid infrastructure and many enthusiastic helpers in place, it is little wonder that local soccer players are afforded almost limitless possibilities. Many are given the chance to play high school ball as well as club soccer, and some are able to reach even greater heights.
“The future can hold a big advantage for players if they work hard. They can save their family a substantial amount of money by getting a college scholarship to do something they love doing, but at the same time having the college pay for their education,” says Mitchell.
Richardson has seen many players go on and do exactly that.
“There are so many opportunities for kids to play at different levels if they want to,” she says, “everything from junior college to NAIA. The Tulsa and Oklahoma City area provides a lot of NAIA and NCAA Division II opportunities and we’ve even had a kid from Green Country play for UCLA who has been in the NCAA Division I final four.”
Jenks High School sophomore Brandon Keener, 16, has played for several GCSA-affiliated teams including Hurricane F.C., Tulsa Thunder and Bixby Highlanders.
“I want to go to college and maybe even the MLS someday,” says Keener. “As you grow older it gets more serious, but you can get more out of it for sure.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Mitchell believes soccer will eventually become an even more prevalent part of the sports culture in the U.S.
“There is definitely a strong future for soccer in the United States. It is never going to be as big as football, basketball or baseball, but the country is so big, there is definitely enough room for another major sport. There is plenty of room for players to come on and play in college and possibly even to play professionally in the MLS,” he says.
Keener also believes soccer will be kicking for years to come.
“I hope someday soccer will grow and we can watch MLS games on the TV instead of all the English games. I love those games, but I’d like to see more American stadiums grow and more people start going to the games and start talking about that instead of the NFL and NBA and stuff like that,” he says.