WESTMINSTER — Wayne Gasperini and his three young sons walked to a park near their home Wednesday afternoon to replicate something cherished that the coronavirus pandemic has stolen from the boys.
“He shoots and he scores!” Gasperini shouts when a soccer ball splits two orange cones that he’s laid out on an obstacle course in the grass. Gasperini blows a whistle for the next drill, and they practice throw-ins to one another. “Use your feet to trap!” Gasperini says, and the boys listen.
After 30 minutes the practice is over, and the young soccer players retreat to the shade of a pine tree for water bottles. They’re smiling.
But there is absolutely nothing fun about being a sports-crazed kid in 2020.
“I was very disappointed,” 11-year-old Skyler said, “because spring soccer is one of the big things I look forward to the most.”
Coronavirus shuttered sports on a global scale with millions of fans patiently awaiting the return of their favorite leagues. But professional athletes are not the saddest sport casualties from this pandemic. Imagine being one of the Gasperini boys.
Last week, when the Colorado Soccer Association officially canceled its spring season, dad had to break the news to Skyler (11), Keller (9) and Marley (6).
“There was a level of acceptance, but a deep level of sorrow amongst the kids,” said Gasperini, a Westminster recreation soccer coach for the past eight seasons. “The look on their faces was probably the same on every kid’s face in the state of Colorado and the whole country, if not the whole world.
“We’re literally saying, ‘You can’t be with your friends.’”
Springtime in Colorado once marked the start of thriving youth sports programs. In 2019, the city of Denver reported a 20 percent annual rise in youth sports registration across its spring programs (flag football, soccer, volleyball, etc.) from 2,339 to 2,814 participants. Coronavirus halted that trend. Recreational and competitive youth sports leagues this spring have been canceled across the state, from city-run organizations to club sports. The earliest projected return for team activities on the Front Range is not planned until at least June as some municipalities begin to ease social-distance mandates.
The Westminster soccer program, led by director Paul Mulvany, had boasted participation nearing 2,000 kids between the ages of 3 and 19 on competitive and recreational teams. Player registration fees help to fund year-round operational costs, and now, Westminster Soccer is working with families on refunds or future credits as the economy tanks.
Mulvany said that “we’re not giving up on any type of soccer just yet” and is optimistic his program will offer free camps at the end of July and the beginning of August.
The key for a return to youth sports normalcy is a unified and safe plan forward in the pandemic.
Keri King is the CEO of Triple Crown Sports, a Fort Collins-based company that manages about 200 youth sports tournaments and events nationally, with a significant baseball and softball presence in Colorado. King is also among seven members of a national steering committee called the “PLAY Sports” coalition; a group dedicated to lobbying congress for the creation of an “$8.5-billion economic stabilization fund” and the formation of a “COVID-19 Task Force,” according to a joint statement from the coalition.
The proposal serves two functions: Finding financial resources to keep youth sports organizations afloat during the pandemic and establishing safe and universal return-to-play guidelines.
“If one event or even one practice isn’t socially-distanced responsibly, and there is a COVID-19 breakout, it will immediately put us back in the category of youth sports being a bad idea,” King said. “We need to do as much work as the grocery chains to say: This is essential business.”
Hannah Hollander is a senior at Valor Christian High School, and an outfielder for the Triple Crown Stars competitive softball team — which typically travels for tournament play almost every weekend between April and July. Hollander, signed to play softball at Furman (S.C) University next fall, has tried her best to stay sharp without games or practices with teammates.
“We get up three times per week at 7 a.m. and do a workout on Zoom,” Hollander said. “We’ve been doing hitting practice in the afternoon three days per week, set up our cameras, and hit into our nets. We can get feedback. And, we’ve been (virtual) meeting with our teams twice a week, just to stay close to each other and talk about what we’re going through.”
Making sense of a global pandemic is more difficult for Colorado’s youngest athletes. Like the Gasperini family in Westminster. The boys have grown up with many of their soccer teammates. And now: “A lot of video calls,” 9-year-old Keller said.
However, for brief moments of a sun-filled Wednesday afternoon, the boys could just play. Gasperini does his best to make each soccer drill fun with names like “bacon ball” and “chicken time.” The sound of the boys’ laughter echoed down a quiet neighborhood street.
In the end, it was Gasperini’s youngest son who found the best silver lining. His favorite part of the day?
“I get to have fun,” 6-year-old Marley said, “and I get to spend time with my family.”