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Recreation: New park at Litchfield shows the pull of soccer

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Coach Joel Banta looks across the wide expanse of grass at the Stables Park playing fields and visualizes it filled with soccer players.

Banta, a former Waccamaw High School player, is coaching for the regional youth soccer development organization Coast FA that has expanded from Socastee to the new county park in the Pawleys Island area in hopes of building interest in competitive soccer in partnership with Georgetown County’s Recreation Department.

Banta says the lush grass at Stables Park is “miles different” from the field behind Waccamaw Elementary School where he learned the game’s fundamentals from his father, Paul, who is regarded as the founder of youth soccer in the area.

Banta, Ben Schoen, the boys varsity coach at Waccamaw High School, and Donna Anderson, a former player at the University of North Carolina, hold 90-minute practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Stables Park in an effort to develop players for higher level competition than what is offered in a recreation department league.

That has caused some confusion in the community about the Coast FA agenda, according to director Heyward Gulledge. “People think we’re starting a rec league at Stables Park, and we are not,” he said. “We offer rec league programs in the spring and fall at Socastee Park for players ages 4 to 14. We are working hand in hand with Georgetown County Parks and Recreation to develop select soccer teams. The last thing I want to do is hurt the rec programs.”

Gulledge said Georgetown County runs its recreational soccer program in the fall. Coast FA’s goal is to develop more advanced players for regional and state competition by practicing and playing year-round.

“We are well on our way to developing a program for Waccamaw Neck,” Gulledge said. He hopes to have U-10 teams for girls and boys after tryouts in the spring.

“We hope to field multiple teams in multiple age groups,” he said.

Gulledge’s efforts mean that young players like Harrison Harcum, who was going to Socastee for Coast FA soccer, can stay closer to home for practice.

“It’s very nice for us since we live in Pawleys and not driving to Socastee all the time,” said Harrison’s mother, Camden Harcum. She still makes the drive to Horry County for her younger son, Parker, to practice and for Harrison to get an extra day of coaching on Wednesdays. Still, she appreciates any relief on a school night.

“I am so happy with the park,” Mrs. Harcum said. “It’s really nice. This is a great program, and these guys are great as soccer coaches.”

Compared to its 300 players on travel teams and 500 in local leagues at Socastee, Coast FA is in its infancy at Pawleys Island.

“It’s a start,” Banta said. “One day we will fill up these fields. It’s a process, getting the word out and training parents to understand how we do things. It’s planned from the time kids are 6 or 7 years old all the way up to 18.

“Our major goal is to get the fundamentals, just technique,” Banta said. “We’re not just getting out here and running up and down. Players get a thousand touches. The more comfortable they become at 6 or 7, the less we have to teach at 12 and 13. And they are having a ball out here. They don’t want to leave.”

Coast FA’s goal is to develop more talented players and give them an opportunity to compete against the best teams in the Southeast. Some of the young players from Stables Park were invited to join others from Socastee for games in Savannah, Ga., last weekend. “It was to give some kids in this program an idea of what the next level of player is,” Banta said. Coast FA and Georgetown County will host a major tournament in April at Stables Park with 16 teams scheduled to play.

“Our goal,” Banta said, “is to create more numbers and train kids at an early age. Once they get to a certain level, we don’t want to go backwards. We don’t want to keep teaching technique at 12 and 13. It should be automatic.”

Players can go as far as their talent will carry them with Coast FA, Banta said. “These kids travel all over,” he said. “Once you reach a certain level, you get noticed and start to get on college radars.”

It’s possible to play year-round, but Banta encourages young athletes to play different sports until they reach an elite level. “Soccer has its own club system, different from baseball,” he said. “I don’t think any of our kids will go full-time academy. The commitment is just the travel. They train at Orangeburg three times a week and are flying all over the place. What we’re doing here is grass-roots. Most of our players have played rec ball. Some have gone a little farther. Once our players get to 15 or 16 years old, our program stops after the fall so they can go to their respective high school teams in the spring.

“It’s fun to see these kids enjoy it, get excited and come every day,” Banta said. “It’s nice to be back in the community again with soccer.”

For more information, call 843-602-8086 or go online to coastfa.com.

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