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Durango Parks and Recreation struggles to retain youth soccer players

Program gains players after COVID-19, but city officials want to go further
Durango Parks and Recreation hopes to broaden its youth soccer player base. Just ahead of the fall season’s first game day on Saturday, the program has 564 players signed up to play, 59 coaches and a total of 44 boys and girls teams ranging from preschool all the way to eighth grade. Middle school teams are the hardest to retain, said recreation coordinator Andy Grenhart. (Courtesy of Bayfield Parks and Recreation)

Durango Parks and Recreation has had 564 players sign up so far to play youth boys and girls soccer this fall, more than during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city is still figuring out how to retain players after they reach a certain age.

The Parks and Recreation Department hopes to boost registration and retention numbers by elevating the quality of the youth program. Andy Grenhart, recreation coordinator for the city of Durango, said this fall marks his fifth youth soccer season with the city. Participation in the city’s youth soccer programming increased from the low 400s during the height of the pandemic, but the city would still like to see more registrants.

In addition to 564 players, the city has 59 coaches, only eight of whom are paid city staff members, and a total of 44 teams for the fall season, he said. But players don’t tend to stick with the program once they reach third grade.

“In terms of the age level, we really drop off at third grade,” he said. “We have a lot of interest for preschool, which starts at 3½ (years old), kindergarten, first grade and second grade.”

Retention gets even worse in fourth and fifth grades, and at the middle school divisions, as other soccer organizations tend to absorb Parks and Recreation players into their ranks, he said.

Grenhart said the best way to grow the program is by increasing the quality of coaching and level of play, providing better practice sessions and increasing training for referees.

“(That) will hopefully retain some of those players that start with us at the kindergarten and the preschool and the first grade level into the older age brackets,” he said.

Thierry Multon, a longtime soccer coach and referee, is working for the parks department to train goalies, coaches and referees in addition to refereeing Sunday pickup games to give youngsters more access to the sport.

He said he wants to help the parks department offer soccer to kids regardless of their family’s income levels. Enrollment in the spring and fall youth programs costs just $50. And early sign-ups can participate in a scholarship program wherein the parks department will split that bill.

The city’s fall youth soccer program is currently 30 to 40 kids short in the middle school division from creating enough teams to diversify competition; currently, the players are relying mostly on intrasquad competition, Grenhart said.

The spring season is a different case. The parks department usually has enough registrants to compete with surrounding schools, including Bayfield, Ignacio and Pagosa Springs, he said.

Having more kids and more teams offers value in that parents don’t have to travel for games on Saturdays or practice days.

Grenhart said coach and referee training stems from the parks department’s goal of increasing the quality of games for youth players and increasing the quality of the program to entice kids to stay in it.

He said soccer is Durango Parks and Recreation’s largest program, averaging about 500 sign-ups per season or 1,000 per year.

He said the program takes a hefty time investment, but it is fulfilling to see teams hit the field on Saturdays. The first game day of the fall season was played Saturday.

“I appreciate the participation and the people who are here to help make it grow,” he said. “It’s what the community wants and needs, which is what Parks and Recreation is here to do, just support the community.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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