Growing the game - South Delta Leader

Philip Raphael

Steve Cardwell stands on the main staircase landing of the Delta School District’s main office, balancing a soccer ball on his right instep.

The Supt. of Delta’s schools is posing for a photograph to go along with the district’s announcement last week it has given the green light to set up three soccer academies in local schools in conjunction with the Vancouver Whitecaps pro soccer club. Two are slated to operate in North Delta for boys starting in September, and one in Tsawwassen for girls is scheduled to kick off in 2009.

Cardwell’s athletic feat with the soccer ball is strikingly symbolic as dwindling enrolment in Delta’s schools has prompted a search for ways to balance the district’s books.

If all goes as planned and young soccer players are drawn to the academies, Delta could have a net gain of a dozen or more students from outside the district in the first year of operation. And with provincial funding at around $5,800 per enrolled student that would help address future funding shortfalls.

This year, local trustees had to grapple with a deficit of just over $3 million—something that required cuts to teaching support staff and administrative workers in the district.

The fear is school closures are next if funding and enrolment solutions are not found.

Funding not the only motivator

But listening to Cardwell the move to set up another sports academy in Delta—one for ice hockey has been run from South Delta Secondary since 2004 and a softball academy is located at Seaquam Secondary in North Delta—is not purely done for financial reasons.

“It really stems from the symposium we had earlier this year—Vision 2012—The Schools We Want,” he says. “That talked about offering students a wider variety of choices in programs.”

And if that helps retain local students and then attracts those from outside the district it would provide a win-win situation for local schools and the individual student, he adds.

So far, the numbers look promising with spots filling up at the academies at Delview Secondary—for boys in Grades 8 to 10—and North Delta Secondary—for players in Grades 11 and 12.

The association with the Vancouver Whitecaps is also a big boost for the district’s academies and the game of soccer locally as well, Cardwell adds.

“Soccer is inexpensive, multicultural, open to boys and girls, highly involving at all levels of skill, a great team sport and fun to watch,” he says.

Pro game to benefit

Watching closely is Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Vancouver Whitecaps and a recognizable face in the Canadian soccer scene as a player and former head coach of Canada’s national team.

He is delighted the pro club has found a home in Delta’s schools and hopes the program will solidify the Whitecaps’ efforts to grow the game at the grassroots level, while at the same time developing elite players who may one day suit up for a professional team and even represent Canada on the world stage.

The three academies slated for Delta will be run in addition to the Whitecaps’ residency program for older elite players in Burnaby.

“We had nothing like this when I was growing up,” says Lenarduzzi who started playing with the Whitecaps in the early 1970s. “Before that, when I was 14 I had to go to England and play with Reading if I wanted to progress.”

He adds it is the responsibility of professional clubs in Canada to provide elite prospects with the opportunity to train at a high level and now the Whitecaps have stable financial backing to support that.

“We have solid ownership and can look ahead at player development like this at the grassroots level,” he says, adding praise for the school district, Corporation of Delta and the community for making similar programs such as the Vancouver Giants involvement in South Delta a success.

Lenarduzzi says while examining the possibility of putting down roots in Delta the Whitecaps talked with the WHL club’s officials and looked at their relationship with the community and found a wealth of support the soccer club would like to tap into.

Local connection

Growing the game of soccer from the ground up has been the vocation of Bart Choufour.

A teacher at South Delta Secondary who has been running his own soccer schools for many years, he now divides his time in the classroom with being the Whitecaps’ head coach of the boys’ prospects. He believes the establishment of the academies in Delta a step in the right direction.

“You’ve got to give the Delta School District some credit here for jumping on this right away and making this program happen,” Choufour says.

“This will be a program that will help identify the elite players and also give them an excellent academic foundation as well. But more often than not, those kids who are the top players are also very committed and excel at academics.”

According to the Whitecaps, the objective of the Delta School programs is to provide a formal training program, within the school timetable, with a commitment to academic and athletic excellence. The curriculum is designed to enhance the technical and tactical components of the student-athlete’s game through extensive on-field and off-field training.

Community asset

Falling in line with the academy program in Delta schools is the prospect of the Whitecaps establishing a training facility at John Oliver Park.

The club is currently in discussions with Delta officials on setting up new playing fields and support services at the site. Part of a deal would include community access.

While an agreement is being worked on, no timetable has been set to reach a deal. But Lenarduzzi concedes having soccer academies in Delta does help.

Convinced of positive impact on the community through the academies and the possible inclusion of a training facility is Rick Connors, president of the Tsawwassen Soccer Club.

“You look at what is being proposed and you can see the benefits to the community and the kids, and that comes in the form of continuity which is lacking in the sport of soccer,” Connors says. “We know soccer is well supported, but there was not much there at the high school level.”

Throw in the prospect of a top level training facility locally and, Connors adds, Delta could be home to a “complete soccer package unlike anything elsewhere.”