sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Paean to The Inferno

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Last weekend, my eighth-grade son’s soccer team, The Inferno, played their last game together.* Eh, maybe it’s really not that momentous in the grand scheme of the great world, but this is their sixth year playing travel soccer, and it’s been one heck of an enjoyable ride.

Indeed, “paean” is a lofty term for a bunch of kids playing soccer. You got me there. But this also is a story of the little train that could, and that’s where the grandeur comes in to me. Our club is Pal-Riv, from the two small towns of Palmyra and Riverton. In our towns, we often battle the numbers game in terms of participation. But it’s worse than you’d think: Not only do we start out small, but in everything from the schools to the sports teams, people fade out as the years pass, moving to other places where the grass appears greener.

As I watched The Inferno boys take the field last weekend, I thought of it as a triumph of community commitment.

If you want your community to be good, you have to give your time — and your presence.

Today’s youth sporting environment puts pressure on town teams. There is a wacky race for talent at young levels. Local teams are ripped apart.

For the most part, The Inferno enabled the kids of Pal-Riv to play together for the past six years. In fact, during the past two seasons, our stability, success, and team chemistry attracted a few high-quality players from local towns whose teams at that age level had themselves disappeared for one reason or another.

My son has had a great head coach, Jeff Elliot, who I think pushed The Inferno players appropriately. We have some kids who were studs when they first started playing travel 8 v 8 and some kids who tripped over the ball, and I believe the team’s structure allowed all of the kids to get something out of the experience of playing soccer. He added a little more each year since they were young’uns to help them develop at a reasonable pace while still keeping it enjoyable.

Two quick Jeff Elliot stories. Once one of our kids, right in front of our bench, lifted his foot on a throw-in. Change of possession. I’ve seen many coaches — too many — go apoplectic over such an event. Jeff put his hands on his head and chuckled. Moments later, that same player made a heads-up play on a sideline ball. I doubt he would have done that had been berated just moments before.

In another game, one of our few bad losses, we were getting drilled by a team that was running up the score. Our kids were down. Even for me, the sulky assistant coach, slouched on the bench, the game couldn’t end soon enough. But Jeff never let up encouraging the kids. To my dismay, he kept sprinting to get balls kicked out of bounds and rushing them back to our players. I was like, “Please, Jeff, just let it end.” Wouldn’t you know, our guys popped in a goal with one second left. They left the field that day jubilant.

We have a great parent group. We had our I-N-F-E-R-N-O signs, which often featured an upside down letter or two. We have a few overzealous sideline moments (you know what I’m talking about!), but by and large, I think we’ve traveled with class.

The kids have had fun together. Partially because of the coaching, they play loose. They hang out together. They’re a bright, motivated group of youth athletes. For my son, The Inferno has been a big part of his childhood.

Our boys also have had athletic success. We’re in the top flight in the South Jersey Soccer League. We played in the State Cup Tournament and won a first-round game. We played some of the top teams in the state — I think all of them conglomerations of players from far and wide — and competed hard and respectfully. Win or lose, during end-of-game handshakes, many other coaches tipped their hat to us.

(I wish I had a sports movie-like story to close with here, but, alas, while they did make it to the championship game in their final tournament, the boys fell short, 2-0.)

Ultimately, much of this was because people stayed. The kids developed at different paces, and the core remained in Pal-Riv.

I sigh when people talk about how the town/school next door is better. I look around, and there are enough people around me in our towns to make whatever we want happen. In sports and schools, sometimes the next door neighbor appears better mainly because it’s full of Pal-Riv kids. If those yellow jerseys became red — whew, where we’d be.

If we stay, our teams are better, our schools are better, our towns are better.

If the people who care all direct their attention elsewhere, a team, an experience, like The Inferno never gets to be.

*For rhetorical effect, “their last game together” works best. But, in reality, the boys may assemble a spring team next year when they are all freshmen.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “Paean to The Inferno”

  1. Scott–I was on a team in my cub scout bowling league. We were last place at least once, and I suspect more often. I remember we all got plaques one year that said that, as the team at the bottom, we were essential, because we held everyone else up. That’s good enough for me!–Don

  2. Go Pal-Riv!! So happy to hear the team stayed together as small towns need to do that to survive. Hopefully, many of them will be going on to PHS where they can continue to play together!!

  3. As a former Pal-Riv player during the glory years of the 70’s – 80’s, I can attest to the memories and friends the experience creates. I still remember my boys like Jimmy Mac and Beaner beating up on those nasty Cinnaminson kids and going to war with the bigger kids from Delran – they were always good over there, probably from the early start they got drinking beer. Not sure where all these club teams came from or why we think we need them. We have definitely lost a piece of our souls when you lose that local mentality and sense of playing for a team that represents where you are from. I blame Obama.

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