Youth get their kicks with the Kitsap Pumas

(Above) Kitsap Pumas Executive Director Ben Pecora talks soccer with a young camper Wednesday at Gordon Fields in Tracyton. (Right) Pumas forward Tony Kerr mixes soccer with fun at the Pumas youth camp. - Wesley Remmer/staff photos
(Above) Kitsap Pumas Executive Director Ben Pecora talks soccer with a young camper Wednesday at Gordon Fields in Tracyton. (Right) Pumas forward Tony Kerr mixes soccer with fun at the Pumas youth camp.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/staff photos

With their smiles stretching from sideline to sideline, more than 40 young soccer players dug their cleats into the spongy grass at Gordon Field.

It was the third morning of the five-day Tracyton youth soccer camp, the first of eight camps the county’s first fully professional soccer franchise, the Kitsap Pumas, will host this summer.

“You build an affinity for the game not only with the kids, but with the parents,” said Pumas executive director Ben Pecora, who was at camp Wednesday to coach 4- and 5-year-old players. “It’s really satisfying because their learning curve is so incredibly rapid.”

Pecora and club owner Robin Waite launched a countywide youth initiative shortly after announcing the franchise’s birth in September 2008, hiring youth development coordinator James Ritchie, who also is the Pumas goalkeepers’ coach, to promote soccer around the county.

For the past nine months, Ritchie has worked with area schools and soccer clubs to organize affordable, quality camps to serve young players. The camps are designed to help players develop their skills — and have fun — and connect the Pumas with the communities around Kitsap.

“We are just trying to work with as many kids as we can to get them interested,” Ritchie said. “The first camp here has been brilliant, we’ve got great guys here.”

Open to players 4 to 14 years old, the Tracyton camp included dribbling, passing and shooting drills, station-to-station work and the ‘Kitsap World Cup,’ an opportunity for players to put their skills to use on the camp’s final day. Pumas forward Tony Kerr, who doubles as youth academy director, and goalkeeper Dustyn Brim coached along with Ritchie and Pecora.

Pecora worked with the youngest group, Ritchie handled the oldest and Brim and Kerr shared duties with the middle-aged group, comprised of players 6 to 8 years old.

Kerr, who remembered kicking a soccer ball in his family garden but never attending an organized camp as a child, said coaching the area’s youth is an opportunity as well as a learning experience.

He remembered one boy who showed up to camp crying on the first day, refusing to step on the field or participate. Five minutes later after a little prodding, the boy was laughing alongside his peers.

“You feel like you’re making a difference, so to speak, with the kids,” Kerr said. “To see that in kids and to feel like you’re making them happy is the biggest thing.”

The club’s summer camp schedule includes visits to Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo, Sequim and Bremerton, the next being Sequim (July 6-10). The majority of the camps are five days long and cost $100. Camp participants receive a Pumas T-shirt and one free game ticket.

Ritchie plans to expand the program in the future, pointing to a possible clinic in late-August for high school prep girls who need help readying for the fall season.

“We want to make sure it’s top notch and as good as it can be before we move on,” Ritchie said. “I think it’s something that will snowball; I think it will get bigger and better every year.”

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