Adventure August 12, 2008

Sawtooth United’s Soccer Teams

local kids epitomize good health, sportsmanship, and the game of soccer

It’s a bright July day in the south Valley. The thump of young feet on soccer balls can be heard, as boys and girls in lime, yellow, and blue scrimmage vests weave though orange discs laid out on the thick green grass of Wood River High School’s soccer facility. Calls for the ball. Shouts of encouragement from coaches. Laughter. But most noticeable of all, the distinctive navy and gold shorts of the Sawtooth United Football Club.

For 10 years, young people have worn these shorts proudly—at Sawtooth’s annual July National Soccer Camp, on soccer fields throughout the state, and in streets and markets of the Wood River Valley. On the field and off, the shorts are badges of excellence, and the players who wear them are ambassadors of good health, sportsmanship, and the game of soccer.

The Sawtooth United Football Club was organized in 1996, with the express purpose of providing more touches on the ball, and allowing players to enhance their skills and maintain their fitness and love of the game of soccer. Club-level play would expose players to higher levels of competition and, according to co-founder Stewart Sonneland, “bring kids from the north and south ends of the Valley together.”

The club experience started with two boys’ teams, coached by Doug Hahn, and a girls’ team, coached by Sonneland. He winces as he recalls, “I took the girls to the State Cup in Boise in May. I thought the Cup was for rec teams. We got hammered. Big mistake.”

Since those early days, Sawtooth has risen in both numbers and stature to become one of the most respected soccer clubs in the Northwest. The size of the club has grown from 48 players in 1996 to more than 700 in 2005. “In the past five years,” observes past club president Mark Gasenica, “We have been the only soccer club in the state to grow at this rate (and no one is even close).”

Gasenica sums up the accomplishments of a decade: 20 championships and 22 second places; 14 players moving on to play in the Idaho

Olympic Development Program; a dozen who have entered the college ranks. “Being competitive from a mountain town, whose fields are covered with snow for five months, and going to tournaments against much larger cities and winning is very rewarding. Our major accomplishment, though, is getting more and more kids to play soccer.”

The Sawtooth programs include ages 5 to 18. The Development Program, initiated in 2000, teaches soccer fundamentals to area youth aged 5 to 12. It now serves more than 200 players, placed on 27 teams that train from April to June and participate in tournaments in May (the club-sponsored “Soccer in the Sawtooths” extravaganza) and June.

I felt blessed to go overseas and participate in the sport I love most,
alongside people I greatly respect . . .
—Ashley Mardian

The Competitive Program runs seven to eight teams in the fall for Middle School students 11 to 14 (while older and more advanced Sawtooth-trained players compete for state titles on teams from Wood River High School and The Community School. In the spring and summer Wood River and Community School players, ages 11-18 unite to compete on 12 to 13 teams, storming out of the mountains to wear the blue and gold in tournaments from Pocatello to Boise. >>>



In the last week in July, Sawtooth brings in professional players from Major League Soccer and the Men’s and Women’s National Team to share their experience and love of the game. The instructors include players like Roy Lassiter and Jason Kreis (the top two leading scorers in MLS history) and, most recently, Kate Markgraf, who won the World Cup and earned three gold medals at the Olympics.

In the summer of 2004, Sawtooth United expanded its programs overseas. Laura Gvozdas, former Wood River High School star, wanted to provide girls from the Wood River Valley the opportunity that she had to play summer soccer in Europe. With husband Greg Gvozdas, the WRHS girls’ soccer coach, she helped organize the Sawtooth United Premier Program to “play throughout the summer, enjoy a European travel experience, and to prepare for the fall high school soccer season.” “It’s a really maturing experience,” Laura says, “for the girls to go outside their Wood River Valley ‘bubble.’”

The 2004 Premier Team went all out to make that out-of-bubble experience a rewarding one. From January to May, they completed monthly fitness testing and, throughout the summer, practiced three times a week. They raised money by selling tickets for Sun Valley Car Wash and bulbs and plants from Clearwater Nursery. And they met for monthly bonding activities (game night, Holland Jeopardy, and team bowling), intended to mold girls from different schools and different classes into a “team.”

The Sawtooth Premier Team trained with a coach from the Royal Netherlands Soccer Federation in southern Holland, then traveled north to Almere, Holland, outside of Amsterdam to compete in the Holland Cup. In stiff competition against teams from Switzerland, Germany, Mission Viejo (CA), Sweden, and Denmark, the Premier Team finished second in the U-17 Challenge Cup and was presented with the Fair Play Award, the Sportsmanship Award for all teams in the division.

For both players and coaches, the results were secondary to the experience. In Almere, all the young women, including the two female coaches, slept in a single large classroom. “Needless to say,” recalls Laura Cordes, “twenty-two females sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags on thin blow-up mattresses for a week in the same classroom was quite an experience. And add to that our soccer gear, sweaty and wet from a downpour in our first game.”

Community School junior, Sara Berman, remembers being astonished at how big soccer was in Europe. “Every town has soccer fields and lockers, and in Almere, the tournament was such a big deal that it took over the town. There were banners everywhere, and so many things to do.”

“When we went over,” Berman adds, “we knew we weren’t the best, but we found that we could compete. More than that, though, we had fun with it. Some of the teams were way too serious, but we found that part of being successful was enjoying the experience.”

Ashley Mardian, now a first year student at the University of San Diego, recalls, “The most surprising part of the trip, for me, was not the knowledge I gained on the field, but the friendships I left with. I returned from Holland with a family. No matter how tough the training or a loss, we were all in it together. Our chemistry on the field grew because our relationships did. And we worked together because we respected one another.”

Mardian sums it up, “Because of my experiences in Holland, I gained a greater understanding of different kinds of people and established friendships with people I never would have known. I feel blessed that I was given the opportunity to go overseas and participate in the sport I love most, alongside 23 people that I greatly respect.”

The hard part, according to team captain Lexie Praggastis, was “that I couldn’t argue with the ref.”

From the Development Program on up through the elite Premier Team, from indoor training in February to the National Soccer Camp in July, over 3,000 players in the last 10 years have progressed through Sawtooth United’s soccer programs. And in the coming years there will be thousands more.

Anticipating the growth of the Wood River Valley and the growing interest in soccer, Sawtooth United is hoping to receive a TOPS Grant from U.S. Soccer to involve more members of the Hispanic community at an earlier age. The Club is establishing an endowment for a financial aid fund to be able to offer financial assistance for tournaments and travel. Ultimately, there will be a need for a 12-field complex to attract competition to the Valley instead of having to travel throughout the state to find it.

In the meantime, though, want to see good soccer and healthy kids? Go to the WRHS fields in July to the National Soccer Camp, or to The Community School’s Sage Willow complex to see the Sawtooth United Premier Team training hard for its 2006 trip to Scandinavia to compete in the Gothia Cup in Sweden (the largest youth soccer tournament in the world), and in the Dana Cup in Copenhagen. On any given Saturday in the fall or spring, go to one of the fields that dot the Valley and watch a game. In the spring: Sawtooth United games. In the fall: Sawtooth players starring for the Wood River Wolverines and The Community School Cutthroats.

After 10 years, the ubiquitous Sawtooth soccer uniform will be changing, but you will recognize the kids who wear them. They will be healthy, happy, and proud—ambassadors of their sport and the Wood River Valley.

Bob Brock has been an English teacher and soccer coach at The Community School for over 20 years. He can’t keep up with the kids anymore, but trying keeps him young.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.