On a recent Saturday morning at Central Ridge District Park in Beverly Hills, 9-year-old Landon Luff practiced dribbling a soccer ball with his older brother, 11-year-old Gunner.
On another part of the field, girls from the Nature Coast Soccer Youth 13 girls competitive team in their purple soccer shirts were paired with players with developmental disabilities as “buddies,” helping them with soccer basics, as moms and dads sat in camp chairs on the sides of the field.
Randy Naese, as he was talking to Jenna Roth, his coach and also his teacher at Pleasant Grove Elementary School, paused and offered his hand for a handshake when a Chronicle reporter approached.
“I’m glad to meet you,” he said.
A few minutes later, Landon came over to tell what he loves most about soccer.
“I love to score goals and get points,” he said, adding, “Soccer helps you exercise your bones and muscles.”
At 18, this season is Charlotte Keeran’s first time playing soccer.
“It’s really good,” she said. “I like running – I’m trying to lose weight.”
Across the U.S. on any given Saturday or Sunday morning, nearly 7 million kids from the ages of 6 to 17 are on a local soccer field playing youth soccer, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).
In Citrus County, 20 kids from the ages of 3 to 18 with developmental disabilities have their own team: Nature Coast Soccer Club TOPS – The Outreach Program for Soccer, part of the national US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer program.
December is U.S. Disability Soccer Month, celebrating and raising awareness for organizations that support soccer athletes with disabilities, such as this local program.
Joel Waldrop, this year’s Nature Coast Soccer Club president, said that at one time the club had a program for kids with developmental disabilities, but it had stopped a few years ago.
They started the TOPS program this fall, along with the start of the regular youth soccer program.
“The way it came about – we’re a new board, and we went to our annual meeting for the state of Florida youth soccer clubs where they were talking about this program, and we thought it would be cool to bring it to Nature Coast,” Waldrop said. “And that’s when Jenna said, ‘Well, as you know, I’m a special ed teacher,’ which is perfect.
“The real goal is to get kids that typically wouldn’t have the opportunity out here on the field playing.”
Many of the kids have friends or siblings who play soccer and are often left out. This program gives them the opportunity to be like everybody else – and it’s free.
On Saturday morning, Jenna Roth gathered the TOPS players on the field and told them, “Your job is to get in position and do three passes.”
It’s less of a real game and more like a P.E. class or a fun, structured activity with soccer balls.
Roth instructed the players through drills, letting them take their time, cheering on successes big and small.
“Go, Randy!” she called out as Randy moved the ball down the field.
“It has helped his skills improve so much, but also helps his self worth, and he works so much better with other kids now,” said Randy’s mom, Cora Naese, one of the parents in camping chairs. “Also, Mrs. Roth is his teacher, and it’s important that there’s someone who actually works with kids with disabilities.”
As Roth explained, “We don’t play a regular game. What we do is practice skills, with everyone out on the field at the same time, and then we finish with them having a scrimmage with each other.”
The girls in the purple soccer shirts are there to be helpers and encouragers, which benefits both them and the TOPS players.
“You get to make a new friend and you also get to help them do stuff that normal kids get to do,” said Delani Roth, 10.
“It feels good to help – I come every Saturday when I don’t have a game,” said Harper Webb, 10.
“It helps you build more responsibility and caring, because you have to form a bond so they’ll understand you,” said McKayla Fogel, 12. “We all care about the TOPS program.”
Jayden Baker, 7, has autism – and he LOVES soccer.
“It helps with his socialization, and gives him something to look forward to,” said his mom, Brittney Cordova. “He has a real passion for soccer and he watches YouTube for soccer tips and then will practice the tips out in the yard all day, every day.”
Amanda Luff, Landon’s mom, said the TOPS program allows her son to play the same game his two older brothers play, but at his own level.
“We tried (regular) soccer with his peers, but he couldn’t keep up, so this has been really nice,” she said. “He has a good time, and he feels like he’s actually in a game, and he can compete with his team.
“He gets excited scoring goals, and that’s something he probably wouldn’t be able to do,” she said.
Older brother Gunner, out on the field with Landon, said his brother has “good passing skills” and is “really good at dribbling the ball” and maneuvering it around obstacles that are in the way.
“I like helping him play because he doesn’t do this often,” Gunner said. “It’s good that he has his own team; it fits him.”