On a blissful, sunny Saturday morning last weekend, hundreds of children descended on the River Soccer Club in Roxana as they have before: cleats tightly tied, shin guards already on, ear-to-ear smiles and bolting to the playing fields for a day of fun with friends.
That is exactly what Rebecca Mais and a group of other equally dedicated parents had in mind when they broke ground on the expansive project in the fall of 2000.
Little League baseball and softball had the Pyle Center. Football had a Pop Warner program. But in one of the geographically largest counties east of the Mississippi River, there wasn’t one park where kids could go play soccer. The nearest complex of this magnitude is clear across the Delaware Canal, in Newark. So, for many parents, soccer wasn’t a viable option, due to the distance.
They wanted a place where their children could play soccer and have a good time, a place where their children could hone their skills and compete without feeling like they had jet-lag from a long car ride, and a place where a growing number of Sussex County kids could learn how to become better people by learning valuable lessons about good sportsmanship, competition and hard work.
So, in response to these desires, local parents created a soccer sanctuary for kids in Sussex County.
“We just wanted kids to have things to do,” Mais said simply.
And aside from enjoying the children’s enthusiasm on this autumn Saturday morning, seven years later, a large number of parents made their way over to a special sponsorship presentation, in a show of gratitude to local contributors without whom the River Soccer Club might have never existed.
“We’ve been very tickled from the commitment and support we’ve received from the community,” River Soccer Club board member Howard Gerken said. “There were three big ones that helped get us started, but lots of others have stepped up and we’re very appreciative.”
Among those honored on Sept. 22 were the River Soccer Club’s “big three,” including the Longwood Foundation of Wilmington, Bunting and Murray Construction, and the Carl M. Freeman Company, as well as five additional contributors.
The Longwood Foundation contributed $250,000, including an initial donation of $125,000 to get the project off the ground. Bunting and Murray Construction and the Carl M. Freeman Company donated an uncountable amount of labor, expertise, time and energy to the project.
In addition, five local business, including Zonko Builders, Coleman Bunting & R.E. Gray Associates, Rebel One Skate Shop, Wayne Lyons of Long and Foster Realty, and John and Andy Timmons of Millville by the Sea pledged bi-annual donations of $1,500 for five years to help defer the expense of grass seed, chemical treatments, paint, grass cutting equipment, gas and electricity for irrigation, etc.
The ceremony marked the completion of the first two phases of a three-phase project. The first two phases included fundraising, planning and execution of the existing facility. The final piece of the puzzle will be complete when and if the River Soccer Club is able raise $2 million to build an indoor facility.
Currently, there are approximately 675 kids, ranging in age, gender and ability, who take part in the River Soccer Club’s fall, spring and summer recreational and travel teams, including the TOPSoccer Program, which is geared toward children who have physical or mental impairments.
“Our primary focus was the kids,” Gerken said of the plans to build the River Soccer Club complex. “We didn’t want to have a men’s league playing on our field. Instead, we wanted to meet the needs of the kids. Some want just a little bit of it, and that’s where our recreational program comes in. Some want more competition, and they go to our travel teams and practice two to three nights a week. And then we have our TOPSoccer program, which is for kids with handicaps. They want to play and be a part of a program [too].”
In addition, River Soccer Club hosts various camps and tournaments, most notably the Columbus Day Tournament on Oct. 6-7. And though there are plenty of options available now for players, there was at time when soccer didn’t have the clout of other sports in Sussex County.
In 1995, the River Soccer Club began, with three recreational teams and 48 players. They had to scramble to use any fields available to get in their practice and play. Sometimes, their teams would practice on small fields on Gerken’s property. But, thanks to the Mais family and their generous offer of providing the River Soccer Club a “reasonable” 25-year lease for 45 acres of farmland, area kids of all ages, abilities and interests now have a place to play soccer.
Local contributor Wayne Lyons has two children who participate in the River Soccer Club, and for him the donation was the least he could do.
“If it wasn’t for the River Soccer Club, I don’t think my kids would be into soccer,” he said. “I don’t know where I would’ve taken them.
“And I have to thank Rebecca Mais for donating the acreage to put the fields together,” Lyons added. “We’re not a huge city, but this is a great place for the kids to get out and play soccer on a Saturday. They really love being out there.”