The youth soccer league for middle school-age players has grown to more than 100 players.
Behind Calvary Baptist Church in Winter Garden is where you’ll find Firestorm FC players battling it out on a sunny Saturday morning.
The youth soccer league — which is in its fifth season — has offered a place to go for middle school-aged players over the years who have outgrown youth soccer but still want a competitive, fun place to play.
It’s the reason why players like Eli Reyes, 15, show up early on Saturday morning instead of sleeping in or watching TV.
“I like the community, and I like how it’s focused on building character and also building your talents,” said Reyes, whose father coaches in the program. “It’s grown a lot since our first season … the competition is getting better and then we have just little rivalries every now and then — it’s all fun and amazing.”
Keeping the game open and fun for young soccer players has been at the heart of the organization since its inception by Joe Gitto, Scott Green, Clarence Lockhart and Chip Wilson — a group of dads who had coached their kids in the soccer program offered by the city of Winter Garden before they aged out.
When the league first started there were only 56 players — ages 13 to 17 — spread across four teams, and practices and games were held at the church. The league has kept a deal with Calvary Baptist — paying $1 to rent the small field behind the church, though Gitto said the league cuts them a $500 check at the end of the season as a thank you.
While things have gradually picked up over the last few years, starting off there were immediate challenges.
“We had very low expectations and the reason why we did is because when we were aging out of the Winter Garden league in Braddock Park, they were like, ‘Oh we’ve tried this and it’s never worked,’” Gitto said. “So that first season when we had 56 kids we were like, ‘Well, let’s see if it (holds) together.’
“First seasons are really difficult — we didn’t really have all the equipment … we’re thinking, ‘Wow, a lot of these kids may not come back,’” he said. “But not only did they come back, but they started telling other people.”
Since that first season, registration has gradually grown over the years to where now there are 108 players registered across six teams. The growth has come from word of mouth, Gitto said.
More players also has helped with the costs of keeping the league going. Simply buying the paint needed to draw lines onto the field costs around $1,000, while Gitto and coaches ref games to save money.
The $100 registration fee — $75 for returning players — helps go toward costs, but a good chunk of that goes to paying for uniforms.
Meanwhile, the church itself put in $15,000 into lighting for the field, allowing teams to hold practices and games at night. The help is appreciated, but the hope is to get assistance from local businesses in the community.
“We’re really trying to go out and see if we can get some sponsorship money from the community — raise a few thousand dollars,” Gitto said. “We want to do a website so we can really promote the league more and make the registration process a lot easier. We’d like to go to the referee association and actually get qualified referees to come down — with sponsorship dollars, we absolutely could afford that.”
The growing pains of a young league are things that have to be dealt with, but the players enjoy their time out on the field with their teammates and friends.
Like Reyes, Mallory Daniels came to Firestorm FC after aging out of the YMCA’s soccer program two years ago and was looking for more.
A student at Legacy Charter, the 13-year-old is one of the dozens of female players using her time in the league to brush up on her game. With the teams being coed, Daniels said that it has actually helped her grow as a player over the past few years.
“It brings a whole other level to it and I feel like it makes it a little more fun, because they’re more aggressive and I almost have to improve at a more rapid rate so I can face up against them,” Daniels said. “It’s really a big challenge, but it is a lot of fun.”