Where the goal is fun

It is a Thursday evening, the sun is glowing warmly in the sky, proud parents sit on the grass and young athletes chase soccer balls around the field.

The scene is nothing out of the ordinary in Prince William County’s suburbia, but for the 15 players on the Manassas Area Soccer Association’s TOPSoccer league, their parents, and teen-aged buddies, this is something special.

The Outreach Program for Soccer, known better as TOPSoccer, is a program designed for children with mental and physical disabilities who would otherwise be unable to participate in most soccer leagues.

The first league of its kind in Virginia, the Manassas TOPSoccer league began in January and has rapidly grown from just a few kids to a league of 15 children, ages 7 to 16.

“Our league is tailored for special-needs kids. We can do anything to meet their needs,” TOPSoccer coach Bill Van Wickler said.

In the TOPSoccer program, various allowances and adjustments are made to meet the needs of the players.

“The program doesn’t really have a set structure. We just make it fit to what the kids need,” Van Wickler said.

“Coach Van Wickler is very patient and great at working with the kids,” parent Terri Joya said.

Some special equipment is available to the team, allowing athletes to adjust easier to the game. Specially designed balls may be used by players in wheelchairs so that the ball will not become stuck under their chairs.

Another special device, a “kickspot,” may be wrapped around a player’s shoe so that contact with the ball will make a squeaking noise and the player will know to focus his attention on the ball.

Additionally, each player on the team is paired with a teen-aged “buddy” who assists them during practice and the game.

“The program gives the teen-agers a chance to give back to the community,” Van Wickler said.

Most of the teen-agers are members of their high school and community soccer teams and many have siblings with special needs.

“We build great relationships with the kids by working with them every week. It’s really very special and fulfilling” said volunteer Dale Rossi, 16.

“I just like helping the kids have fun,” said volunteer Ali Southards, 17.

According to the parents, TOPs soccer league helps their kids to improve physically and socially.

“My son Ben is autistic and so it would be hard for him to be on a regular soccer team. This is a much better setting for him,” parent Beth Bampton said. “Ben has a lot of skill and participating here makes him feel like part of a group.”

While the social and physical aspects of the program appeals to the parents, the kids are just in it for the fun.

“I really like playing around with my friends here,” said James Solis, 12.

“I like getting all the goals and playing with friends,” added Jennifer Chua, 14.

TOPSoccer programs exist throughout the country and are sponsored by the US Youth Soccer Association, a group dedicated to bringing soccer opportunities to all children at all levels of ability and of all ages.

“Most importantly,” Van Wickler said, “I think the kids get the enjoyment of getting to participate in the game rather than just standing on the sidelines … .”

For more information on volunteering or participating in the Manassas TOPSoccer program, e-mail Bill Van Wickler at [email protected]

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