Crazy about kids soccer

Thursday, January 11, 2007
Craig Billmeyer posed at Houck Field House on Wednesday night while coaching a ninth-grade soccer team, playing in the background. Billmeyer has been working with Noon Optimist youth indoor soccer league since its inception about 20 years ago. (Kit Doyle)

Craig Billmeyer doesn't argue with those who question his sanity.

He has heard the incredulous reactions for so many years when discussing his volunteer duties as the director of the Cape Noon Optimist indoor youth soccer program.

This weekend will wrap up the 20th season for the indoor recreation league at Houck Field House on the campus of Southeast Missouri State, and Billmeyer has been around for all of them.

"It's kind of funny. I remember distinctly 20 years ago, coaching a team and a woman asked me which one was mine," Billmeyer said. "And I said I didn't have any kids out there. She said, 'You're either really nice or really stupid.'"

Billmeyer won't argue the latter, but we'll go with nice.

The Cape Girardeau lawyer eventually did have two children, both of whom are involved in the program. Andy, a senior at Central, this year is among those who completed 13 years of participation in the program from kindergarten through high school. Billmeyer's daughter, Allie, a freshman, also plays in the league.

The league added the kindergarten and high school divisions sometime after the program began, making this a special year of having players who went all the way through the program. Billmeyer celebrated with that group last weekend with a postgame pizza party.

When the league started 20 years ago, it had 150 players in fewer divisions, which meant some large age differences on the court. "It got a little disconcerting," Billmeyer said, "especially when you have boys playing against girls."

That's just one of the things that makes the Noon Optimist soccer league different -- it is coed at every age group. The league also keeps no standings, has no practices and gives out no awards.

Players from the Plaza Tire Bucks and the Saxony Village Storm squared off in a sixth-grade division game last Friday at Houck Field House in the Cape Noon Optimist youth indoor soccer league. (Toby Carrig)

"It's purely, completely for fun," Billmeyer said, "and there's not that many things you can say that about anymore. I've done competitive and club soccer, and it's nice to be able to to turn that off once in a while.

"We know there's so much emphasis on winning in youth sports and there doesn't seem to be as many pickup games any more, and that's what this is. These aren't all soccer athletes, and they don't have to be the best. They can just come out for fun."

The fun aspect still draws some of the area's better soccer players, like Andy Billmeyer and like Jack Wedemeier, the Notre Dame senior who was named the co-MVP of Class 2 after the Bulldogs' state title run.

"A lot of college-bound kids come here just for fun," Billmeyer said. "They know each other and have fun. It's a social event."

The league plays from early December until the Monday of the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. With about 750 kids on 70 to 80 teams, each of which play about seven or eight games, the Optimists organize 300 games per year in a span of about 50 days. With the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, soccer is played each evening and all day on weekends at Houck.

That kind of pickup league doesn't organize itself. Billmeyer conservatively estimates that he puts in 80 to 100 hours on the league in that span.

About half the club works the registration-day event. He also has considerable assistance from club members Pat Young and Lonnie Lusk, "who has been helping as long as I can remember." A volunteer coordinator works with each age division on the player draft and distribution of T-shirts and information.

And each team has one or two coaches. Each team also has a sponsor, some of which have been around since the beginning.

Hannah Wiggs, right, beat Cory Hogan to a header at Houck Field House on Wednesday during a sixth-grade soccer game in the Noon Optimist youth league. (Kit Doyle)

"We have sponsors who became involved when they had kids playing and whose kids have long since graduated, and they're still sponsors," Billmeyer said.

Referees officiate each game, and Billmeyer said three in particular over the years -- Central coach Tom Doyle, high school referee Martin Santana and former Optimist league and Southeast player Jeff Pulley -- have been "real valuable assets."

Billmeyer also gives a great deal of credit to Southeast Missouri State University for turning over Houck Field House for the duration of the league.

"We couldn't do this without the university," Billmeyer said. "They could do camps in here during this time, but they've been really good to us. We couldn't do this anywhere else."

Houck makes for an interesting soccer venue with its elevated bleachers providing a wall around the entire gym floor. Play in the league is continuous, so substitutions are made on the fly through a pair of double doors near one end of the gym.

Billmeyer noted that the Cape Noon Optimist organization, which was chartered purely to help kids, repays the university with annual contributions to Southeast's student-athlete education center.

Teams play 7-on-7 plus goalkeepers in the younger age groups and the league is 5-on-5 plus keepers on the senior division.

And rather than soccer balls, the league utilizes what resembles an oversized tennis ball. The ball was employed for a number of utilitarian reasons, but it has its own mystique.

"It has restricted flight," Billmeyer said, making the comparison to regulation soccer balls. "And you're going to get hit at some point, and these don't hurt as bad.

"Kids like them. There's something about playing with a big, green, fuzzy soccer ball."

Billmeyer and the Noon Optimist club also has been involved in competitive soccer in the past. The organization sponsored a competitive team, the Cape Terror, that Billmeyer coached for about 10 years. That team included 10 players who were part of Notre Dame's state championship team.

"That was a magical thing that happened," Billmeyer said, noting the Terror's wins against St. Louis club teams in regional tournaments. "It was the players; it wasn't the coaching."

That would be crazy talk if it wasn't just Billmeyer being nice. And being nice -- and putting in the time to allow hundreds of area kids have a chance to play soccer -- has its rewards.

"You see kids that you get to know real well come through the program, and they go on to college soccer or other things," Billmeyer said. "It's pretty neat.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: