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Game on in Poplar

Players in the 8U bracket scramble for the ball at Northwestern Middle School in Poplar during AYSO region 1329 play in the summer of 2017. Registration for the summer soccer season remains open through Thursday. Submitted photo

It's soccer season in Poplar. Regional American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) practice kicks off tonight at Northwestern Middle School.

For nearly 19 years, the program has been bringing families together and teaching soccer fundamentals.

"The emphasis is on players, not teams," said Greg Gullicksrud, regional commissioner.

The teams are reformed every year with an eye toward team balance and individual skills. This year, teams won't be formed until the third practice. To give them more touches on the ball, the number of players on the field is smaller for younger players—four per side in 6U and 8U—and increases in older age brackets.

Soccer has been part of Kevin Garland's life for 14 years. The 2018 Northwestern High School graduate has played with the Superior Douglas County Family YMCA, Gitchi Gummi Soccer Club and AYSO.

He said AYSO, in particular, was a good starting program.

"It's more relaxed, more local and there's not as much competition," Garland said. "Everyone gets to play."

And that play time is equal, he said, one of the core philosophies of the AYSO. Others include open registration, good sportsmanship and positive coaching.

Gullicksrud, former pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Poplar, started the regional program shortly after he moved to the area. It was a good way to meet people in the community, he said. It also met a community need, attracting as many as 200 players a year.

The soccer program went on hiatus in 2016 due to a lack of volunteers, Gullicksrud said, and he stepped in last year as regional commissioner to bring it back. There were 101 players in the program last summer.

"I think the families involved really enjoy it," Gullicksrud said. "One parent said Tuesday and Thursday nights are like one big block party."

It's a chance to connect with other parents and players.

"Everyone knows each other when you get there," Garland said.

Volunteer coaches, referees and board members are being sought.

"We rely on parents to be volunteers," Gullicksrud said. "Every year we come up to the opening practice and have to recruit at that practice."

To ensure the program continues, volunteers are also needed to join the soccer board. And Gullicksrud, 71, hopes to find a new regional commissioner. For Poplar soccer to thrive, he said, someone younger needs to step up and lead.

Garland plans to be involved this summer, either as a coach or referee. He'll have to juggle that with his job at the YMCA, however. The 18-year-old has been serving as youth liaison for the board, but that will end this fall when he goes to college in Michigan.

He'd like to see the program continue.

"It's very open, it's very flexible, it's a really good starter program" Garland said. "It opens up more doorways to kids when they're younger, other than football and basketball."

Practices and games take place at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on the field beside Northwestern Middle School in Poplar. Open enrollment allows players from throughout the area to take part.

Registration for the summer season is taken through 11 p.m. Thursday online at The Poplar-Wentworth, Brule and Iron River Lions Clubs offer playerships to help offset the $52 cost for players 6U and older.

Adults can sign up to volunteer online as well. Gullicksrud said they don't have to be a parent to volunteer. For information, visit the website or call (715) 371-1329.