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are a special kind of soccer team...
Blazers players Kevin Correia, left, and Lucas Spinola battle for the ball during a recent practice at Puffer Park in Brockton.
Emily J. Reynolds/The Enterprise
Posted Jul 6, 2013 at 12:01 AM
Updated Jul 6, 2013 at 6:20 AM
The South Shore Blazers United Under-14 boys team has won its league, won the Massachusetts state title, and gone on to prevail in the Region 1 sectional tournament of the United States Youth Soccer Association's National President's Cup. The Blazers have qualified as one of only four teams nationally in the prestigious tourney, which kicks off on Wednesday in Auburndale, Fla. By Jay N. Miller
There is always plenty of soccer talent in the polyglot city of Brockton, but getting all the various styles and nationalities to effectively play together as a team is the perennial challenge. The high school’s boys and girls teams usually do a standout job of making it work, but a youth program has taken things to a higher level this spring.
The South Shore United Blazers Under-14 boys team has won its league, won the Massachusetts state title, and gone on to prevail in the Region 1 sectional tournament of the United States Youth Soccer Association’s National President’s Cup. The Blazers have qualified as one of only four teams nationally in the prestigious tourney, which kicks off on Wednesday in Auburndale, Fla.
With tournaments simultaneously underway in U-13 to U-17 divisions, for boys and girls teams, the President’s Cup competition will see 40 different teams playing that week at the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex. The teams are all housed at the tourney headquarters at the Omni Orlando hotel, just a few miles away.
With the United States divided into four sections, the surviving teams have all prevailed through a long and difficult tournament format. In the national competition, the four teams will play a round-robin format of three games, with the top two squads facing off on July 14 for the national championship.
Brockton resident Nolan Napier is the head coach and guiding force behind the Blazers United. The South Shore Blazers started in 1988, and merged in 1999 with the Mass United club. Although it is mainly a team of Brockton kids, the roster is open to any interested players who want to try out, and the current roster also includes players from Lakeville, Hingham and Marshfield.
“The Blazers were one of the first youth soccer programs around here, before soccer had really taken over,” said Napier. “A lot of these soccer clubs for kids are designed as money-making ventures, but we wanted to make sure we could reach out to inner-city kids. They should be able to play soccer, too, and so we have no socioeconomic barriers. We represent all of the South Shore, but our kids are mostly city kids.”
Napier first began coaching the club in 2000, a time when he admitted the team included a lot of suburban kids whose families could afford to fund their participation.
“We had a lot of very wealthy kids from all over, like a lot of club teams,” said Napier. “But I found I always had to go into the city to find two or three kids with pure talent to fill out the team. My vision was to turn the club into something based mainly on talent for the game.”
Napier also wanted to use the soccer club as a vehicle for helping his city, and giving back to the younger generation of soccer players.
“There’s a certain stigma to being the team from Brockton,” Napier conceded, “and it can be tough trying to get fields for practice. A lot of our kids come from single-parent families, so a big part of our mission is teaching them some structure and discipline and emphasizing how important it is to stay in school. Their schoolwork has to come first. We play in as many leagues and tournaments as we can, and we had 10 games in seven days at one point this season. Our kids got to play over 40 games in two months, and we feel like we have really maximized our season.”
“This has been an amazing run, exciting like March Madness is to basketball,” Napier said. “We’ve been competing against a lot of high-profile clubs, which are not like us. The Region 1 tournament included 15 teams, New England plus states like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We are the only Massachusetts team that got through all that to the nationals, and we are honored and proud of our team.”
It’s worth the trip
Playing for the Blazers is obviously a major commitment for the young athletes, but also for their parents. That’s even more exaggerated when the players are commuting from places such as Hingham or Marshfield. The 18-strong Blazers roster includes Jack Hirschfield from Marshfield, Campbell Davies from Hingham, and Alex Lopes and Jake McGillis from Lakeville.
“Well, we try to carpool as much as possible with the Hirschfields from Marshfield,” chuckled Mike Davies, the father of Campbell Davies, “but it is a big commitment to soccer.”
Both Hirschfield and the younger Davies had been playing for the Galway Rovers club, but wanted a more well-rounded sports education.
“Campbell is a goalie, and we did not like the way his team was developing,” said Mike Davies. “I knew Nolan and really liked what he was doing. My son and his buddy Jack tried out and loved it. I grew up myself in the northeast part of England, where we played with all sorts of kids. I was looking for something like that for my son. Hingham is a great place, but a very homogenized, white population. I wanted Campbell to get the chance to expand his soccer education, and also get to know and play with a more diverse group of kids. It’s been great, and I know he’s made some lasting bonds he wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Napier also appreciates the effect the presence of the suburban kids has on his city players, and vice versa.
“It’s a cultural exchange that works both ways,” said Napier. “We learn to appreciate what we have, and also get to see and know other types of kids. We’ve had kids playing with us for four years, for example, and we’ve never seen one of their parents at the games, but then we have these suburban parents who travel to every single game. It helps all of the kids to broaden their circle of friends, and see how other people live, so it works well for both sides.”
Napier doesn’t profit from his work, and in fact by the time he gets through coordinating the trip to Florida – which will cost an average of over $800 for each player – he expects to have about $20,000 rung up on a credit card. Parents and players pay what they can, and the Blazers have some sponsorships, too.
“I’m surprised Nolan’s wife hasn’t killed him before this,” laughed Mike Davies. “What he does is above and beyond anyone’s expectations. I know he financially carries some of these kids, and his investment of time and energy is just endless. This U-14 team is the one he officially coaches, but he’s also involved with all the Blazers’ teams, U-12, U-15, U-18, and so on.”
But good deeds aside, Napier obviously knows his soccer and produces winning teams year after year. Soccer aficionado Mike Davies is impressed by what he sees on the field, and convinced that when Campbell Davies tries out for the Hingham High team next fall, he’ll have a solid background in the sport.
“Nolan has his team playing a very modern system,” said Mike Davies. “Obviously you need good players, and he has a terrific core of Brockton kids. He has supplemented them with guys who’ll fit in well with his system. They are disciplined on defense, and offensively they just patiently pick the other teams apart. His team plays hard until the final whistle and has a never-say-die attitude. They are a really hard team to beat, because they all buy into Nolan’s concept, and they are the right blend of kids. Most of all, they play for the name on the front of the shirt, and not for solo glory.”
“Nolan Napier is a great soccer coach, who’s also teaching life lessons to these kids,” said Mike Davies. “They develop the right attitude – my wife is amazed at how well-mannered all these 14 year old boys are. Knowing Nolan Napier and what he’s all about, this is a team I wanted my son to experience. Some of the big name soccer clubs charge their kids up to $2000 a season, and recruit all over the state. Nolan doesn’t recruit, doesn’t have the big money backing, and plays a core of Brockton kids. This is his way of giving back.”
“From a soccer standpoint, I felt my son would fit in with the Blazers,” Mike Davies said. “But from the perspective of encountering some of the best soccer players his age, from around the world, and learning to fit in socially with them as well, I knew this would be a good experience for him.”
The Davies family will be heading to Florida and, like Napier, they are optimistic that the Blazers’ run will continue. Early last week, in the stifling 90-plus degrees night, which might be what they will find in Florida, Napier had his boys doing wind sprints to get acclimated to the heat.
“That’s typical Nolan Napier,” laughed Mike Davies. “People keep referring to them as a Cinderella team, qualifying for this trip to the nationals. But they’re not – they belong there.”
Brockton players on the Blazers include: Brandon Baptiste, Ian Collymore, Kevin Correia, Michael Cruz, Mason DaSilva, Erivaldo Delgado, Ardley Docanto, Grace Dos Santos, Nathaniel Fanfan, Tyrese Gomes, Camden Frederick, Sean Khang, Christiano Martins and Lucas Spinola.
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