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San Jose Earthquakes defender Tommy Thompson, the son of Stillwater graduate and soccer Olympian Gregg Thompson, conducted Zoom sessions with members of the St. Croix Soccer Club this spring while in-person practices and training sessions were restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic. Youth sports programs were allowed to begin practicing this week with specific guidelines in place to help limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19. (Contributed photo)

It was a simple message displayed at the end of the St. Croix Soccer Club’s video outlining some of the changes that greeted players who returned to the fields for practices earlier this week.

“WELCOME BACK! NOW LET’S GET BACK TO FUN.”

Coaches, players and their families were eager to take this important step back as practices were conducted at the Washington County Fairgrounds and the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields starting on June 1.

“The majority of kids are really excited about getting outside,” said SCSC Executive Director Nathan Klonecki. “The kids and coaches miss each other and being on the same field and having that cooperation and having that we’re a team. Now they get to actually physically see each other and that’s something we’re excited for is to be outside and be with their peers that they’ve missed.”

After two months of virtual training sessions, webinars and individual skill development, organized practices were allowed starting on Monday, June 1, the first in-person training sessions since March when activities were curtailed by coronavirus pandemic. Taking this next step forward, however, requires several precautions to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We can train with social distancing and 10 people,” Klonecki said.

The guidelines apply to players, coaches and spectators from drop-off to pick-up. Some of the new protocols include:

• There is a no-congregating policy and non-participating family members should remain in their vehicles at all times to help maintain social distancing.

• Parents, siblings and relatives are not allowed on training grounds.

• There are no benches or trash cans (players required to take trash with them).

• All parking is restricted to designated parking areas and teams are limited to their assigned training field space.

• There are designated drop-off and pick-up zones for each complex.

Parents are also strongly encouraged to check the temperature of players before heading to practice and anyone with a fever or coronavirus symptoms is not allowed to participate.

Players should bring their own soccer ball, water bottle and hand sanitizer/disinfectant wipes.

“We want to go outside, but also be cognizant of being respectful of what we’re doing,” Klonecki said. “We have all those different parameters and as we move into the phases where we can play and do more. We’ve had meetings and discussed all that with the coaching staff and we’re asking parents to stay in the car or leave, but not stay on the field because we only have so many people we can have out there.”

So it’s not business as usual, but it’s more than has been allowed since the pandemic shut down youth sports and activities in March.

The SCSC, which features 60 teams and draws around 950 players ranging from 9 to 19 years old, kept players engaged throughout the spring with weekly skills challenges and a variety of activities. One of the more popular Zoom session guests is MLS player Tommy Thompson of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Thompson has connections to the St. Croix Valley through his father Gregg Thompson, one of the greatest football players in Stillwater school history before focusing on a soccer career that eventually included a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 1984.

The club’s Zoom calls drew an average of 200 viewers — the most recent of which with Thompson occurred on May 28.

“We brought in some other pros we know and I reached out to him about doing an interview and training session,” Klonecki said. “That was our second training session with him.”

Thompson, who grew up in California but has cousins and other relatives remaining in the St. Croix Valley, drew an attentive audience.

“It’s just talking about the MLS and dealing with COVID and how did he get to that level,” Klonecki said. “For our players to hear about that, the work rate and

effort, he discussed how he has handled not playing for two-and-a-half months and what he has been doing during that time.

“That has been helpful for our players that a pro player still goes through all the training and all those technique things at that level. It’s been great for our kids to see that.”

Other youth sports organizations are facing the same challenges. Klonecki has worked with other soccer clubs and the Lake Elmo Baseball Association and Stillwater Area Baseball Association, among others, to collaborate on best practices. Youth sports administrators are also working closely with the Governor’s office and the Minnesota Department of Health.

“We all want to be on the same page,” Klonecki said. “We also want to get back on the field.”

If there is a silver lining to any of this, it’s that players have had an opportunity to work on individual skills and fundamentals during the physical time away from teammates.

“In the beginning it was very unknown with what was going on so we did a lot of webinars and then we started to move to doing Zoom meetings with people doing it in their house or backyard,” Klonecki said. “It’s been a challenge, to say the least, for us. For the players, it’s giving some an opportunity to really work on their own and doing their skills on their own and being more independent. They’ve been doing their own thing.

“They realize these are things that are important. For us, it’s the first touch of the ball. That’s a big thing for the players and being comfortable with the ball at their feet. For the last couple of months that’s all they’ve been able to do.”

None of this has been easy for the players, and this time away from friends and teammates impacts everyone differently.

“It’s been hard for some,” Klonecki said. “They haven’t been around people, but I know as we’ve started to get outside kids have had to do stuff on their own and they realize these are things that are important.”

The club is also sensitive to those taking a more cautious approach with returning to the playing field.

“We’re still doing virtual and the club will still do a couple a week if people are not comfortable coming out,” Klonecki said. “We’re still doing that because we want them to continue.”

The online sessions and training have added another tool for coaches and players, even as things continue to open up with in-person participation.

“Usually we’d be outside and training five days a week,” Klonecki said. “For the kids that really love to play, it’s really shown the ones who have had to do things on their own.

“We still try to do it, but it’s different and it’s been challenging for us, but we’ve also had some benefits from it,” Klonecki said. “The Zoom meetings and communications and webinars are things we’ll probably continue to do. It was never anything we used because we always did things in person, but we’ll still use some of it because it’s an easy way to communicate with people.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@apgecm.com

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