By Tris Wykes
LEBANON – The Upper Valley’s Lightning Soccer Club has long been physically headquartered and psychologically centered in the Hanover-Norwich wealth bubble, so Bill Miles’ recent declaration about the youth organization’s future was a bit startling.
“Lebanon is now the home of Lightning soccer,” said the local businessman and newly named club president. “We’re going to be based at the fields at the (Carter Community Building Association).
“I’ve talked to kids who went through Lightning and one of the things they enjoyed most was getting to know players from other towns. When it became just Norwich and Hanover, it lost that appeal.”
Miles, 52, is part of a “public benefit corporation” called New England Sports Park that’s building recreational spaces to be be installed over one of the CCBA’s outdoor basketball courts and one of its outdoor tennis courts in downtown Lebanon. The manufacturer lists the cost of such a setup as roughly $500,000.
One surface will be covered in artificial turf and used for small-side soccer and be the main field for Lightning’s under-10 offerings. The other will feature a textured court suitable for street and roller hockey and other sports. Construction is scheduled to start next month and Miles hopes it will first see action a week or so after Labor Day.
“People here haven’t had the guts to say, ‘This is crazy; we don’t need to be like Boston’,” said Miles, who foresees the club’s older teams using larger, grass fields at other local locations. “Let’s create a product that suits our community and families.”
Founded during the 1980s, Lighting Soccer long seemed to be that product. Miles said that when he coached in the organization a decade ago, it was common to field three teams in each 2-year age group, from under-10 to under-18.
Now, Miles said, “we’re lucky to have one at each level”. He’s created a new organization that will operate under the previous organization’s same name but not from its previous Norwich address.
Throughout the years, rising registration fees and costs associated with travel throughout New England, as well as the time needed to do so, eroded families’ desire to join Lightning, Miles said. Teams were regularly spending weekends away and practicing throughout the week.
Even before Covid’s arrival, adults and kids were deciding that family time, not allegedly-elite competition was becoming their priority.
“Do you really want to drive four hours round trip and touch the ball maybe 30 times when you could have been playing pickup with your friends and getting better?” Miles asked rhetorically. “I don’t think the travel time for younger kids is necessarily well spent if you want them to love a sport and become good at it.”
A maven of the local pickup soccer scene, Miles said he was discussing field availability with Lighting board members earlier this year when they mentioned the club’s shrinking numbers. A Harrisburg, Pa., native who played soccer at the University of Pennsylvania, Miles said he eventually agreed to try and rebuild the organization with a different approach.
“There’s been a little bit of a vacuum in vision and leadership there,” he said. “But we’re going full speed ahead. I told the board that if it wanted something different, I would do something different.”
Hanover High boys soccer coach Rob Grabil has guided various boys and girls Lightning teams for 32 years. The former college coach said he’s optimistic the club will “sort itself out” and believes programs in Concord and Manchester will absorb those seeking a different path.
“Lightning’s had a fallow two years, with no one really running it in an executive capacity,” said Grabil, who’s supportive of drawing players from throughout the Upper Valley. “I think reinventing it could work out well.”
The club’s recent efforts have included not just planning and financing for the CCBA location, but stepping in to administer and run summer soccer camps. Several companies that had long done so in the region suffered financial setbacks and had trouble booking foreign, student coaches because of Covid-19.
Thursday, a happy and hoarse Miles oversaw more than 50 children practicing and competing in small-side games at West Lebanon’s Civic Memorial Park. It was a chore akin to the proverbial herding of cats, the tall, slender man and various teenaged counselors encouraging, cajoling and refocusing their small charges.
“Playing youth sports has become a transaction,” Miles said. “Forget that. Let’s go play. That’s how the best players learn.”
The plan is that “Lightning Academy” players 10 and under will pay roughly $400 per season and play on the CCBA field in age-appropriate sessions twice a week during the afternoons and evenings. There will be games of a sort there on weekends, with Miles still deciding on whether teams will be regularly scrambled or kept together for the season.
“If your child plays another sport or has ballet or music lessons, that’s fine,” Miles said. “Just come another day of the week. We’ll also have open soccer times and additional times for the really enthusiastic kids.”
Sessions will be organized and overseen by a paid, professional coach and supplemented by high school players and parents who want to volunteer. Sasa Cirovic, an experienced club coach from Long Island who worked at this week’s West Lebanon camp, will be Lightning’s new director of coaching, Miles said.
“As the kids get older, we’ll have travel teams, but there’s no need to rush into that,” Miles said. “If you have a great product, parents will be thrilled and won’t feel their kids are falling behind. And they won’t be paying additional league or tournament fees or for gas and hotels and food.”
Ok, Bill, but my child is gifted and precocious and he’s going to be held back by playing with Aidan from Claremont. Your response?
“One of the best things about sports is playing them with multiple ages and experience levels,” Miles said, mentioning pond hockey and pickup basketball as prime examples. “If you’re the better player, it’s your job to make that pass so perfect that your teammate does well with the ball. Hold yourself responsible, not them.”
Miles, a father of three who regularly includes kids in his adult pickup games, said he would like to start the new Academy offering with 40 players from ages 6 to 10. He believes word-of-mouth advertising will raise that number rapidly but he’s not naive about the rebuilding challenges.
“I don’t want to offend people, but the Lightning brand is not as strong as it was five years ago,” he said. “We have work to do to get kids excited and deliver a better product.”
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