The Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association’s (NLSA) provincial minor soccer league program appears to be just the jolt of inspiration and prudent grassroots development the sport has needed to take it confidently into the future.
NLSA technical director chairman Jeff Babstock credited youth vice-president Judi Kelloway with the initial push for such a program that now includes various boys and girls’ under-14 and under-16 teams from Avalon, Conception Bay South, Mount Pearl, Feildians, St. John’s, Burin Peninsula and Western playing in province-wide leagues.
Babstock said the youth committee, headed by Kelloway, attempted to get a such a league going, but the metro regions didn’t get involved at first.
“The Western, Central and Burin Peninsula regions had a little success to start,” said Babstock. “But to get as many kids as possible involved through the national training centre program, the NLSA technical staff felt things had to change. In order for the young players to get quality competition on a regular basis and to help the regions outside the metro area, a full province-wide setup was needed.”
It initially started at the U14 level with the winner representing the province at the club nationals. The under-14 program is now in its third season, and this is the second year for under-16 boys and girls’ leagues.
“We felt it was important to expand the league to U16 because we had to have a place for graduating U14s to play to keep them in the system other than playing a one-weekend tournament in August,” explained Babstock.
Babstock also credited the backing of technical director Dragan Mirkovic, player development coordinator Mike Power, women’s vice-president Denise Hickey, men’s vice-president Gord Dunphy and NLSA president Doug Redmond for their support and help with the province-wide minor setup.
The key to the program, according to Babstock, is that it not only develops players but coaches and officials as well.
Toss in the availability of more artificial-surface facilities, as well as a couple of indoor facilities, which makes for a longer season, and Babstock feels the sport has never been in a better situation in terms of the ability to train and develop players.
“Things have worked out fairly well, especially on the boys’ side,” said Babstock.
“On the girls’ side, outside the metro area, the talent pool is more shallow.”
Babstock said there are some growing pains on the female side. St. John’s, Mount Pearl and Conception Bay South are fairly well developed or moving forward. Avalon got started this year.
“Some people wanted immediate success, but it takes time. It’s rare to have immediate success with such a venture.
“Overall,” added Babstock, “things are working out and we’ve had mostly positive feedback from parents.”
Babstock said the provincial soccer association is achieving what it hoped to achieve on the player and coaching development side. Soccer wanted to provide opportunities for players to be identified in a more competitive environment, “and you won’t get that in house league because the calibre of competition isn’t there.
“Because more regions coming on board, it exposes more players to that type of situation which allows our provincial coaches to get a look at more players and to see whether or not there is potential outside the metro area.
“Give us three for four years when the players, who started in the program and were exposed to an environment that included longer seasons, indoor training and more competition, have graduated and then we’ll see how much they have benefited from the program.”
Babstock is convinced the NLSA is headed in the right direction and he says it’s been a good experience for everyone involved so far.
“It’s an environment,” he said, “we really had to get into because the old way of finding coaches and referees and developing players wasn’t cutting it.”
Under-14 coaches Ian Osmond of Mount Pearl and Steve Major of St. John’s both speak highly of the program.
Osmond, whose Double Blues team is in the league for the first time this season, said while “it’s all new to us,” he noted, “It’s what we need to do to get to the next level in soccer in Newfoundland … no doubt about it.
“It’s the next step for our soccer.”
Osmond said the kids “absolutely love” the road trips to Corner Brook and the Burin Peninsula as part of the province-wide schedule.
He said it seems the province is finally on the same page as the other provinces in terms of player and coaching development.
“Coaching,” said Osmond, “is a big part of our development now and it good to see the NLSA pushing it. Coaching, in my opinion, is even more important than the facilities we have today in regards to overall player development.”
For his part Major said the program is excellent.
“It allows the players to improve on the national standard … at least the potential is there for that.
“If the competition isn’t there for the players to push each other and drive the skill level and the interaction among the players, we’ll never achieve anything nationally,” he said.
“Having a provincial league will draw the best players and teams across the province playing each other will hopefully elevate the game to another level.”
Major, who has been working with St. John’s soccer for several years, says he can see a big improvement in skill and overall player development since the addition of artificial surfaces and indoor facilities.
“We’ve come a long way,” Major said. “Hopefully, we’ll see the league winners do better in national club competition in the next few years.”