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Rock Hill parents, leaders kick-start middle school soccer

Although Sullivan Middle students have wanted the school to add soccer for several years, budget cuts kept the idea on the back burner.

But recently, Sullivan's leaders and parents found a way to launch a soccer program they expect to draw more students than any other sport. Plus, they say it won't cost the school a dime.

"It's going to be 100 percent self-supported," Principal Michael Waiksnis said. "We really think we'll be able to maintain it year after year."

With the school board's blessing, Sullivan is now the only one of Rock Hill's five middle schools offering soccer.

The school will field two teams - one for girls, one for boys - of about 20 seventh- and eighth-graders. They'll compete against Fort Mill and Clover middle schools. Practice starts in late January.

"I'm really happy," seventh-grader Alyssa Jones said. "A lot of people have been asking about it. Now that we finally have soccer, we can finally play together."

To come up with $3,300 to launch the program, organizers sought partners.

Discoveries Soccer club will donate balls and equipment, train coaches and hold skills training clinics for players. Rock Hill's Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department is lending the school goals and nets to place on its football field. The athletic booster club is pitching in about $2,000. The $25 athletic fee that students must pay to play will cover the rest.

"Anything that gets kids touching a soccer ball is great for the sport," said Dom Wren, Discoveries' executive director of coaching.

Sullivan's program adds to the sport's growing popularity in Rock Hill, Wren said.

In recent years, Northwestern High's boys soccer team has captured state championships. ESPN named Enzo Martinez, a former Discoveries player and Northwestern star, "Player of the Decade."

In June, Rock Hill was chosen to host the 2012 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship.

"All the things we've got going on with soccer ... it's just fantastic to see," Wren said. "Rock Hill is a hotbed of soccer for South Carolina."

At Sullivan, kids are buzzing about the beautiful game. About 100 students showed up for a recent informational meeting about the sport.

"It was amazing," said Owen Privette, Sullivan's athletic director. "I was thinking maybe 50, 60."

Among them were many students who don't currently take part in an extra-curricular activity.

"Because everybody's talking about it, they're getting interested," Alyssa said.

That's encouraging, said Waiksnis, who sees it as a chance to engage more students.

"It's probably going to be our most popular sport," he said.

School board member Ann Reid said soccer, widely considered the world's most popular sport, fits nicely with Sullivan's International Baccalaureate program. Under IB, Sullivan teachers work to incorporate a broader, global perspective in lessons, focusing on students' international identity.

As a school of choice for IB, meaning any student in the district can attend, soccer could become a draw for students at other schools.

But athletic rules prevent an eighth-grader in the choice program from playing, Waiksnis said.

"We don't want to be in the business of having students come for athletics," he said. "We want people to come for our academic program."

Other middle schools could follow Sullivan's lead.

Castle Heights Middle is trying intramural soccer, which Sullivan did before winning the school board's approval.

Saluda Trail and Rawlinson Road middle schools' principals said they are considering adding the sport.

Dan Ballou, whose two daughters attend sixth and eighth grade at Sullivan, said he and other parents are as excited about the new sport as the students are.

"We've been dealing with a lot of cutbacks," he said. "It's nice to be able to provide more opportunities."