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TOPSoccer athletes play through pandemic

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

While the world was fretting over whether professional sports would be cancelled and season ticket holders wondering how they would occupy their Sundays this fall, some families were rooting for the return of sports for much more important reasons. For the families of special needs children, Needham’s TOPSoccer has provided an opportunity for competition, fun, and camaraderie. So when TOPSoccer saw the potential that other leagues were going to shut down for the season, organizers tried their best to come up with a plan for how to proceed - one they could present to families that would make them feel safe about letting their kids participate.

Needham Soccer Club Director of Player and Coach Development Lee Popper explained how the TOPSoccer board found nothing but enthusiasm when it presented families with the plan.

“We have a separate TOPS Committee that kind of pre-empted it and said, even if we get the ability to run soccer in general, do you think we’d be able to run a safe and effective TOPS program? So we kind of came up with a bunch of parameters that we put in front of some of the families to say, 'This is what we’re thinking: we keep players separated and have them only work with their buddies. We have separate balls that only stayed with that group and were sanitized. We have two big fields instead of just one. We have places for families to be separated and keep distance. We talked about how all the buddies and the players and the families that came would wear masks. So, we were kind of laying out what it would look like and kind of curious if there would be any interest at all. What was amazing was that a lot of the families came back and said, ‘yes, absolutely.’"

TOPSoccer is a “community-based soccer program designed to meet the needs of players with physical and/or mental challenges,” with TOPS standing for “The Outreach Program for Soccer.” But while TOPSoccer organizers were looking to continue any way they could, a lot of programs for special needs kids were cancelled, which made making sure the program continued vastly more important.

“I think it’s important for these families who need these outlets for their children,” Popper explained. “The ones specifically that have another child that’s very active in a tremendous amount of regular sports that are continuing, through the town or club, while a lot of the programs that are built for children with special needs are being cancelled. The outlets these kids had for their children just weren’t there any longer, so I think they were really pleased with having this as an option. For some, this was some of their first interaction coming out of a summer, where they were keeping their child fairly isolated. This was some of their first interactions, so with everything that we planned and making it safe, they were extremely grateful to have this opportunity for their child.”

Families were vocal about their happiness to have the program back. It's reflected in emails forwarded from Popper:

“Thank you so much for running the season! I feel like it was one of the best yet, despite all the restrictions.  And at a time when the kids especially needed it!”

“Hi there - just wanted to say again a big THANK YOU for making this season happen. This year was particularly important as almost all of our adaptive activities/sports have been cancelled. Lilly and Teddy had to sit through Stevie doing many sports all weekend and without topsoccer they would not have had something of their own. We are always thankful for top soccer, but particularly this year.”

While some families did opt out, Popper said it was only about four or five out of a group of twenty. But like everywhere else, games needed to be modified and changes needed to be made. In the case of Needham TOPSoccer, that mostly came in the form of not recruiting new, volunteer “buddies” while practicing social distancing.

“Normally we only have about twenty athletes and 40-50 buddies that join us. We had plenty of buddies. We turned away volunteers that were looking to join us, and we only actually started at ninth grade for people that were returning. So we didn’t bring in anyone new this season, just because we wanted experienced buddies. But in terms of the athletes and some of the families, I would say out of twenty, we still had fifteen or sixteen who joined us, so it was just a few who didn’t. And obviously, some of these children are definitely compromised just due to their situation, so they just a few didn’t feel comfortable and opted to not join us this season.”

While soccer is the base, the events aren’t entirely soccer and soccer skill based. But that doesn’t matter to the kids, who are often just happy to spend time with their (often Needham High varsity athlete) buddies.

“They’re less games, than a day of activity. Sometimes we’ll play duck duck goose or we’ll bowl with the balls. There are some players who want to scrimmage and get at it and compete, but a lot of them just want to interact with these buddies who they end up adoring. And they look forward just to seeing them, and sometimes the family, just seeing them moving and being active and just engaging with others is all they want. There are never really scores or anything like that. It’s not that type of program.”

Popper commented on how many Needham athletes have come through the system as buddies, and how often they note how rewarding it was to them, and how much they got out of it.

“I think it’s very rewarding for not only us as committee members, but all the students who volunteer their time. When they are done, they realize how much they get out of it, seeing the joy that these players get from this. It’s a special program. With the competitiveness Needham Soccer has always had, this is something that's special and has its own place that really brings joy. Soccer is known as the beautiful game. It’s a beautiful thing to connect these children with special needs with a lot of players that have come through the Needham soccer program, as volunteers. Connecting them for a great event.”

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