Teams looking for a way to do a good deed and also increase game attendance and community spirit might do well to borrow an idea from the University of Wisconsin, Parkside.
The Adopt-A-Ranger program, which matches men's soccer players with youth soccer teams as volunteers, has been a success for all parties. The program, which has been in existence for three years, is open to all local soccer teams regardless of age, gender or talent level of the team.
"I thought we could do something to help youth players in Kenosha and Racine," said men's soccer coach Rick Kilps, a Wisconsin-Parkside graduate who has more than 300 Division II coaching victories to his credit.
"Teams are assigned a Parkside player and that player helps them in whatever way the coach wants to be helped -- maybe taking over a practice, assisting, demonstrating a technique, what have you."
When Wisconsin-Parkside senior Jeff Hines took the field this year during home games, he had his own cheering section. They weren't his family or friends from college. They were children from the youth soccer team he helps coach as part of the Adopt-A-Ranger program. Hines has been working with players between the ages of 6 and 8 for the last three seasons. With players that young, he stressed the fundamentals.
"At that age, they're playing more for fun," Hines said. "I try to get them real loose. I try to get them to spread out, and I tell them about spacing and the like."
Fourteen teams participated in 2000, and 10 teams participated last year.
For Hines, the program fits into his personal goal of community service and also his professional goals.
"I like working with kids," Hines said. "I'm also getting my coaching certificate. So, I figured this is a good way to get some experience."
Not every Ranger embraced the idea with open arms at first. Then they met the youngsters and began reaping the benefits of their interaction with them.
"Some of the guys didn't like doing it at first," Kilps said. "In the end, they thought it was pretty neat when they started getting thank-you notes and hand-drawn pictures. They thought, 'Wow, this means a lot to them.' Our kids realized that they are role models and that they have something to offer."
One of those tangible benefits was the presence of more fans at games. Teams in the Adopt-A-Ranger program receive free tickets, and their enthusiasm helps create an exciting atmosphere. The youngsters typically bring their parents and cheer for the Rangers, with their loudest support reserved for "their" Ranger. They also seek autographs from the players after the games.
"It's a win-win situation for both groups," Kilps said.
While it's been fun for the youngsters, it's also been a learning experience for the student-athletes.
"They look up to me as sort of a mentor, sort of an older person," Hines said. "Now when they're at the (Ranger) soccer games, they run and hug me when they see me.