By Marty Farmer
The Oak Park AYSO, also known as Region 697 of the American Youth Soccer Organization, wrapped up its busy fall soccer season over the weekend with more than 80 games, 100 teams on 15 different soccer fields to ultimately crown champions in 12 separate brackets. AYSO, the national organization, includes approximately 600,000 players in youth soccer, including AYSO Region 697. Numbers aside, the purpose of the organization at all levels fundamentally is encouraging kids to "have fun while learning soccer."
AYSO is based on six core principles: everyone plays, balanced teams, positive coaching, open registration, good sportsmanship and player development.
"The AYSO tag line, 'It's all about the kids,' really applies to our Oak Park AYSO as well," said regional registrar Jeana Reisig. "My kids [Simon and Spencer] started playing in the third grade U10 Division and love the league. There's really a family feeling among the volunteers with Oak Park AYSO.
"I think parents sign up their kids because balanced teams and equal playing time for players in a fun, supportive environment is very appealing."
With approximately 1,800 kids playing in the program, it's obviously been well-received by young players in the area.
"I've been playing since I was 9," said Sam Patston, currently with the U14 Bulldogs. "I just love to play soccer and run around. This is a pretty cool league and our coach [Ed Sagan] is really good."
Xzavier Sefiane-Johnson, Patston's teammate, also enjoys the league and playing for coach Sagan.
"Coach Ed is a great coach because we have fun, but he also pushes us to get better," Sefiane-Johnson said. "I live in River Forest, but I play for an Oak Park team because it's fun to play with different kids."
Oak Park AYSO partners with Elmwood Park AYSO and the River Forest Youth Soccer League.
In addition to its U8, U10, U12, U14 and teen divisions, Oak Park AYSO began another program this fall, its "Very Important Players" division for kids with special needs. The program enables children with physical or mental disabilities to play soccer. The players with special needs are paired with buddies on the field, typically teen volunteers.
"The idea for starting the VIP division came to me when I saw signup information for AYSO programs. I looked it up to see whether there was support for players with special needs and, to my surprise, discovered that AYSO nationally has a program for players whose disabilities (whether physical, neurological, behavioral or cognitive) made it difficult for them to participate in mainstream soccer teams," wrote Sinead Aylward, the VIP Division Coordinator, via email. "I reached out to the Oak Park AYSO to see why they did not have a VIP division here and their response was very simple — they did not have one because no one had raised the need for it. They asked if I wanted to volunteer to coordinate it."
While Aylward hadn't planned on running the VIP program, she realized in order to see it come to fruition, she essentially would have to create it. Her daughter, 6-year-old Emma Johne, is a player in the new division.
"The season went really well," Aylward added. "We had 22 players and had to start turning people away as we only had two coaches. We hope to grow it in future seasons as we identify more adult volunteers."
Dan Jordan, acting regional commissioner of Oak Park AYSO, felt championship weekend went well for everybody involved.
"The fields were a bit wet, but the Park District of Oak Park does a really good job maintaining the quality of the fields," Jordan said. "We got all 82 games in, which was awesome. Most importantly, the kids had fun playing soccer."