BRIGANTINE — On a recent Tuesday evening at the 26th Street recreational complex, boys and girls ages 6 to 8 played together on the same sides — the red team against the blue team — while volunteer soccer coaches Beth Daley, Jill Tate and Carlos Pizarro shouted support and offered pointers.
Commands like “Get back on defense!” “Nice pass!” and “Keep the pressure on them!” resonated throughout the game, as parents took in the action from the sidelines and the kids did their best to heed the advice.
When a player went down with a minor injury, later to return to action, all the other players on both sides knew to kneel down as an expression of camaraderie.
This is how it has been in the Brigantine Soccer League since its inception nearly 45 years ago. The coed recreational league starts in mid-September and runs through early November, teaching kids the fundamentals of the game starting as young as age 3, and accepting boys and girls up to age 15.
“We have a 3- to 5-year-old division that's purely instructional — no games played — that goes on Saturday, and three age groups above them that practice and play games against one another,” said Ed Stoltzfus, the Brigantine Soccer League president for roughly 15 years. “It's strictly a rec league with all games happening here at 26th Street. We don't play games against other towns or teams.”
Competing divisions are Peewee (ages 6-8), Junior (9-11) and Senior (12-15). The number of teams in each division fluctuates annually with how many kids sign up, and divisions can vary from as few as two or three teams to as many as six or eight.
“Numbers are a little down from what they once were, but that's a reflection of there being less kids on the island than in years past,” said Stoltzfus, a former Holy Spirit High School assistant soccer coach whose three grown children, E.J., Evan and Ali, all played in the rec league and on the high-school level.
In each division, and invariably every year since the league started in the 1970s, boys and girls compete on the same teams. Soccer officials who are part of the Cape-Atlantic League Referees Association oversee the rules in each game.
“I call it gym-class soccer because everybody who signs up gets to play, but there's quite a few kids who go on to the next level,” Stoltzfus said. “In fact, we have three Brigantine kids who are starters on Atlantic City High School's unbeaten soccer team, and all three started in our instructional league at 4 or 5 years old.”
Brigantine residents Luke McGovern and Jack Crooks are co-captains for the Vikings, and Ryan Duchat is a fellow starter on an A.C. High team that was 12-0-1 through Oct. 10.
“It's a fun league, and the kids really seem to enjoy it,” Stoltzfus said, “and it couldn't happen without a great group of parents, coaches and volunteers.”