Youth Soccer's 40th Season


When the Tampa Bay Rowdies professional soccer team came to the Tampa Bay area in 1974, youth soccer was pretty much an unknown sport.   After the Rowdies won the North America Soccer League championship in 1975, their marketing and on-the-field success helped develop a youth soccer community that blossomed at a tremendous pace.

Youth soccer growth boomed nationwide, not just in the Tampa Bay area.  In 1974, just over 100,000 youths were registered nationally with the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA).  By 1985, the number was over 1,200,000.  In 2014, over 3,000,000 youths across the country were registered with USYSA.1

For the spring of 1977, then Plant City Recreation Department Athletics Manager Richard “Cal” Calhoun decided it was time to get youth soccer started in Plant City.  That year, with some help from Ken White and the Rowdies organization, the inaugural season of the Plant City Recreation Department/Optimist Youth Soccer program hit the field. 

For that first year, 170 youths participated.  Since then, the program had grown to over 1,600 youths at one point before the economic recession hit in 2008.  After a recent low of 1,150 players in 2011, for this year’s 40th season, 1,250 youths participated on 100 teams in 11 age groups.

Over the years there have been some changes, such as the development of the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex in the early 1980s to provide more field space.  A slight name change occurred in 1997 when the city’s Public Works Department Parks Division merged into the Recreation Department to create today’s Recreation & Parks Department.  In 2004, the girls’ divisions were introduced to allow the girls to develop their skills among their peers.  One thing that has not changed is the program’s philosophy.

“One constant in all of our youth sports programs are our goals of good citizenship and sportsmanship” said current Recreation & Parks Department Director Jack Holland.  “Our sports programs are widely recognized for not allowing negative comments from the spectators, coaches or players to be directed toward the officials, opponents or anyone else.  Citizenship and sportsmanship are our number one priority.  Second priority is for everyone to finish the season wanting more.  That means they enjoyed their experience and want the season to continue and want to come back next season.  If they learned teamwork, how to win and lose gracefully, had fun and developed some skills along the way, it means we have done a good job with the program.”

Holland has a lot of knowledge about the program.  As a student at the Plant City campus of Hillsborough Community College in 1975-1977 and an amateur player for the Plant City Rogues in the Florida Suncoast Soccer League Division II, he was recruited to be an athletic official for that first year in 1977.  Holland refereed in the program for many years after that and has been an employee with the city ever since.  After working soccer, flag football, basketball and the summer youth programs for two years, he started full time in 1979 with the department as Athletic Manager and moved up to Assistant Recreation Director a few years later.  When the Parks Division merged into the department, he became Recreation Division Superintendent and assumed the position of Recreation & Parks Director in 2004. 

Parallel to his work with the city, officiating soccer became a side career.   Following his officiating start working the rec games for the city, Holland became a certified United States Soccer Federation referee in late 1977 and rose in the referee ranks.  He worked several thousand youth, high school, college, adult amateur and eventually professional matches, international friendlies and games at the 1996 Paralympics competition during a 25 year career.  Instructing, evaluating and assigning other officials as well as administrative duties were also among his soccer work during those years.

For the 40th season, there are only two people still actively involved with the program that have been there since the beginning.  Referee Sam Singletary has been officiating in the program every year and Holland officiated for many years as well as being administratively involved for the entire 40 seasons.  Singletary and Holland have been officiating games together for the older age groups each week this season as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the program.   “It’s great to be back on the field with Sam.  It brings back a lot of memories.”

In the late 1970’s, competitive soccer also began to spread throughout the region.  One of the central Florida region’s oldest soccer clubs is the Plant City Lancers who base operations at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex.  While the City’s rec program provides players with a recreational, entry-level playing opportunity, as well as a fun outlet for the more skilled players, the Lancers provide a higher level of instruction and competition virtually year-round.  Lancer club teams travel throughout the Tampa Bay region competing against other travel ball clubs.

Another constant over the 40 years is the involvement of the Plant City Optimist Club.  The club has financially assisted with the program every year.  Many of the members have either coached or officiated in the program over the years as well.  The club also sponsors the annual Tri-Star Skills Competition, recently holding its 19th event, which allows players ages 6-14 to compete with their dribbling, passing and shooting skills for awards.  “The Plant City Optimist Club’s contributions to this program and other department programs have been huge” Holland said.  “They always live up to their motto “Friend of Youth”.

The program is seeing many second generation players and soon, there will be third generation participants.  “It’s really humbling to have now-middle-age adults come up to you on the street and remember you as being involved with their youth sports career” Holland said.  “There are former players that have told me that being involved in the soccer program is what kept them from going totally to the dark side as a youth with drugs, alcohol or criminal activity.  Having a positive activity and role-model leadership from the volunteer coaches and other program officials made a huge difference in their lives.  It is very rewarding to be a part of that.”

Registration for the 2017 season is during the month of January, followed by team assignments mid-February and the season running mid-March to mid-May.  Games are played on Tuesday evenings for the Under 15 Boys and Under 19 Co-Ed age division.  All other age groups, from Under 5 Co-Ed to Under 15 Girls, play Saturday mornings.  All games are played at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex, 2402 East Cherry Street in Plant City.

More program information is available at the program's web page:

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