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GOOOOOOOAL

Children learn more about soccer — and the world — at annual camp

It is a late June morning, and Harmon Field has turned into a soccer-stirred melting pot, simmering in the Saturday sun.

Flags from four countries — Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Argentina — dot the jerseys of the young soccer players racing to-and-fro on two pitches. There are shouts from family members for each — “Go Mexico,” “C’mon, Costa Rica” — and hushed whispers among team members as they eye the opposition.

The competition, though, is less of an international event and more of a local community builder.

The 80 or so players, ages 8-13, darting about the fields all hail from Polk County local kids learning about both the sport of soccer and the countries for which they’re spending the day representing.

At the heart of the whirlwind of action, moving from field to field, is George Alley, whose vision has become the Kirby Cup, the annual summer soccer camp that has become a Polk County staple. “You doing Kirby Cup this year?” is a question as frequently asked by area youth as those about beach plans and exotic summer vacations.

It is exactly what George planned 14 years ago.

Kirby Cup founder George Alley has overseen the program for 14 years, focusing on building soccer skills as well as international awareness and a sense of community.

“I’ve lived in a lot of communities, and everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve made my way into the community and gotten to know people through soccer,” George says. “It’s a game of the world that brings people together. It’s a game for all classes in other countries.

“So, at a grassroots level, we’re trying to help create interest at a younger level.”

The Kirby has done just that, drawing a full slate of boys and girls each year.

Players attend a session each morning Tuesday through Friday of Kirby week, going through soccer drills as well as spending time learning about one of the four countries selected for representation. The youth train one day in each country’s style of play, then end the camp on Saturday with a tournament and picnic.

Former Polk County standout Caroline Lee, now part of Southeastern Louisiana’s program, returned this summer to help mentor a new group of Kirby Cup players.

The Saturdays, needless to say, are a popular end to the week.

“Probably today was the most fun,” says 8-year-old Charlie Wagoner of this year’s camp finale. “That and goalkeeper training. I like soccer, so this helps me learn, and I have fun at the same time.”

Charlie spent much of this year’s final day following the shadow of Wilson Edwards, a recent Polk County High School graduate and the Wolverines’ starting goalkeeper last season. A number of current and former PCHS students, such as Wilson and current Southeastern Louisiana University team member Caroline Lee, join the camp each year as counselors. Nearly all are former Kirby participants.

“I learned a lot here,” Wilson says. “George and all the coaches taught me so much about how to play. It is a good place to be if you want to play soccer.

“I see this as giving back to the county. I came here hoping to give goalkeepers the knowledge I have from playing in high school. I want to give back to make sure Polk County has some good players in the future.”

Charlie plans to be one of those.

“I want to train and learn to be a better goalkeeper than Wilson,” he says with a smile.

“It was also fun to learn about each country that we’re playing for. Until we played the games, we weren’t certain which country we were going to get.”

The international education aspect of the Kirby is important to George, who attempts to pick four countries each year with some tie to current events. This year’s group, for example, included countries playing in the World Cup, offering a natural connection between the sport and the nations.

In the early days of the Kirby, several adult coaches had ties to Eastern European countries such as Romania and Moldova, and often brought items relating to those countries with them to practices, leading to an extensive discussion of each nation.

“Now I’ve reduced those to about 15 minutes each day where I talk about things I’ve pulled down from Wikipedia,” George said. “But if each kid can bring home one or two facts about those countries, that’s great.”

The Cup is named for Dave Kirby, who provided funds to the Polk County Community Foundation with the intent that they be used for events promoting athletics and sportsmanship at Harmon Field. The Kirby Harmon Field Fund enables George to hold the camp each year without charging participants.

“The community foundation has been so supportive and made it easy for me to do this,” says George, who serves as the executive director for Thermal Belt Outreach.

The Kirby Fund sponsors the camp each year through a local nonprofit organization.

“Outreach and a lot of other agencies here have helped by allowing me to hold the camp through them,” George says. “The guys at Harmon Field have also been unbelievable.

“It gives an opportunity for kids to check soccer out that maybe haven’t played before. A lot of the kids are skilled players, but it may be a kid at left back who hasn’t played before and makes three defensive stops to save a game. I tell kids it’s about all the players.” •

Andy Rhinehart is the force behind PolkSports.com and PolkStudents.com, and is an award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in daily and non-daily newspapers. He is also a customer success manager at Parse.ly.