EL Rewind: Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer

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Sunday, June 21, 2015, 12:00 am
Richard Hill-Rowley

Image: The group in October 2014, counting from left to right (and not including the two bending) 4-Scott Swinton; 6-Ken Rosenman; 9-Dave Swanson; 10-Richard Hill-Rowley; 11-Peter Briggs; 12-Jane Beckwith; 13-Jamil Hanifi (at 82, the most senior player); 15-Jon Kermiet; 16-Mary Schultz; 17-Bert Seyfarth; 18-Yasmina Bouraouri (alumni and original player); and 19-Gregg Sellhoff (alumni).

Around ten o’clock on most Sunday mornings of the year, a diverse group of people gets together to play a friendly game of soccer in East Lansing. Young and old, men and women, skilled and novices all stand in a circle, count off, and become members of the red or blue teams. The atmosphere is informal and, while by definition a team game is competitive, there is no tally of the score and the mantra is to have fun and to play so everyone is involved in the game and no one gets hurt. It is a culture that has to be worked on all the time but the veterans try to pass on the vibe and it has worked for a long time.

Sunday soccer (which came to be known as Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer to emphasize the inclusive, recreational nature of the game) started in the winter of 2002. Jane Beckwith moved to East Lansing in November 2000 and, in the late summer of 2001, Peter Briggs started work as Director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at MSU. Both arrived in town from Eugene, Oregon, and both had played soccer on Sunday there. Peter really thought that we could start a Sunday game in East Lansing, Jane agreed and, since I was coaching youth soccer, playing in a competitive league, and had played with the Eugene group on visits to Oregon, I was up for it, too.

In Eugene, it is possible to play outside all through the year but we needed an indoor location for winter games here. We started in the gym at Hannah Community Center that winter and wanted a game mainly for those over 40 years old, like the Eugene model. The first group of players was made up of people who worked with Peter and friends of Jane and me, several of whom were parents of youth soccer players. Very quickly we found that using a futsal ball, like coach Rod Murphy used for his indoor practices, was perfect for the gym and new players since it was a slower ball with a limited bounce.

It was a small group – just twelve! We had a lot of fun but wondered if we could sustain the whole thing. And as we moved outside to Patriarche Park in that first spring, this was still the feeling, because our numbers were low and, while youth teams practiced at Patriarche, it didn’t feel like the right place for us.

We played at the Hannah gym for a couple more winters and our numbers began to grow. While we still thought of ourselves as an over-40 group, more young people were joining in and the gym was getting too small. But we stayed at Hannah for the next outdoor season, playing across the small soccer fields out front. When it was time to play indoors again, most players wanted the game to be in the morning and that was not possible at the Hannah gym. We moved the game to the Lansing police gym, but we needed a bigger space.

Jon Kermiet came to the rescue, working out arrangements to play at MSU, first upstairs at IM East, then on the indoor tennis courts at IM West, and finally in the lower gym at IM West. The group settled on a 10 a.m. start and Greg Seelhoff started an email list. Soon, Ken Sperber had taken over the email messages and he has been the organizer of Sunday soccer ever since. Over a hundred folks hear about the game each week – including active players and alumni like me.

The winter indoor games were at the IM for five or more years, and for most of the time we still used the futsal ball. But as the group expanded, we needed a bigger space to play and the indoor home is now Demonstration Hall on the MSU campus. The play now uses a full-sized ball with more bounce, and most weeks the group now has to count to three with the teams playing in rotation so the field is not too crowded with players.

The size of the group also made the outside field at Hannah too small and the outdoor game moved to MacDonald Middle School where the group still plays from May through October, weather permitting. Play has been at the front and the back of MacDonald, often in search of real goals, but these days most of the games are in the front.

On nice days in the spring and summer, there are up to 25 players at MacDonald by 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. And this is sometimes a problem. Having too many players reduces the quality of the play and tends to favor the younger participants. There has always been a little tension between the idea of a game for those who are perhaps less athletic than they used to be – the over-40 group which formed the core when Sunday soccer started – and the younger players who now regularly join us. Even though these younger players learn our culture, it sometimes takes a while, and this summer the group is exploring ways to serve the needs of all the players, even if this means extra games.

There are some Sunday Soccer players who have been part of the group for a long time and still play - Jane, Hwa-Hu Wu (the last two originals), Ken Sperber, Val Thonger, Jon Kermiet, Ken Rosenman, Jamil Hanifi, Bert Seyfarth, Doug Moffat, Dave Swanson, Scott Swinton and Mary Schultz. I haven’t been a regular for some time, but some players you only know by first name or not even that. When Jane and Peter met at the Lansing airport in 2001 as he was returning to Eugene following his MSU interview, they recognized each other but didn’t know each other’s names!

Now in its 13th outdoor season, Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer has become a minor East Lansing institution. We have debates about how to organize various aspects of the group (or maybe how we don’t do it well enough!), but overall we have avoided bureaucracy and many members of the group help to keep things ticking over. It has been a wonderful experience for me to be part of it.

If you would like to play Sunday Coed Friendly Soccer, and understand we play for fun and not to win, you can contact Ken Sperber (kensperber@gmail.com) and he will put you on the email list – or just turn up at MacDonald on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. ready to play.



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