A Soccer Fix: Summer camp allows players to scratch their competitive itch

July 18, 2020 Cranberry Local Sports

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Morgan Sinan, an incoming freshman at Gannon University and Seneca Valley graduate, slides for a ball during a soccer camp in Renfrew Wednesday morning. Sinan and 64 other players, from high school freshmen all the way up to college juniors, are participating in the five-week camp in an effort to not only improve their skills, but just to be out on a soccer pitch again in a world overcome by the coronavirus pandemic.

Morgan Sinan hadn't played a soccer match since February, but here she was on a sultry Wednesday morning, putting toe to the ball on the soccer pitch.

A goalie and incoming freshman at Gannon University, Sinan was downright starved for action.

Any kind of action.

Being a keeper in coronavirus quarantine proved to be an impossible endeavor.

“It's been challenging, that's for sure,” said Sinan, a recent Seneca Valley High School graduate, chuckling. “I've made my mom try to help.”

No offense to Sinan's mother, but her shots on goal didn't quite have the same sizzle as the ones Sinan is seeing in this soccer camp, held on the sprawling field in Renfrew at the Northern Steel Soccer Club.

What started out as a small camp for a handful of women's college players has swelled to 65 strong, from high school freshmen all the way up to college juniors.

It seems a lot of players are just as starved as Sinan to play soccer again in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It started out with a couple of college kids who used to play for us at (Northern Steel) who asked us, 'Will you do a couple of training sessions for us because we didn't really have a spring season in college and we need to get ready for the preseason,'” said Northern Steel and Mars girls soccer coach Blair Gerlach, who is running the program through his personal camp business, BG Soccer. “We were like, 'Sure.'”

Then their younger sisters wanted to participate. As news spread, their friends wanted to be a part of the camp, too.

Before Gerlach knew it, he had players from six different soccer clubs and from high schools as far away as Mount Pleasant on his field in Renfrew.

“It just sort of took off like wildfire,” Gerlach said, “because they needed something to do.”

The camp blends speed and agility, strength and soccer-skills training into a comprehensive program.

There is an outdoor weight room station set up on the field.

“We literally took all the equipment we use in our club and we bring it out on Monday and Wednesday morning,” Gelach said. “We have benched and full-size bars, trap bars, kettlebells, dumbbells and the kids are legit doing full workouts.”

And feeling the burn.

“I haven't been able to work some of these muscle groups — there's practices where I'm definitely coming home a little sore,” Sinan said. “It's a good feeling. A welcome feeling, for sure.”

Brittnie Spithaler, a Butler High graduate and junior at Endinboro University, stops a pass in the middle of a game Wednesday. Spithaler is using this camp to get ready for a college season that will hopefully be played in the spring instead of this fall.

Safety first

This camp is usually held in the winter, but necessity and demand prompted Gerlach to hold it this summer.

A summer unlike any other.

The coronavirus pandemic had made it very difficult for players in all sports to train like they would during a typical summer.

Club soccer season was also abbreviated because of COVID-19, Gerlach said.

“A lot of clubs started training in June and then a lot of them shut down at the end of June because of positive cases,” Gerlach said. “These kids, if they weren't doing this, they wouldn't have anything.”

Emphasis has been on safety.

“We wanted to provide this opportunity out in the open air,” Gerlach said. “We didn't want to put them in a room where they were going to feel nervous. We didn't want them to be uncomfortable. We wanted this to be something they looked forward to and felt safe coming to and something their parents would feel safe sending their kids to.”

To that end, temperatures of each camper are taken regularly. Hand sanitizing and washing stations are plentiful and weight equipment is wiped down and scrubbed after each use.

“We've made an investment to make this safe,” Gerlach said.

Not only has the camp been safe, it's been ultra-competitive.

Harold Aughton/Butler Eagle: Soccer Camp Renfrew, July 15, 2020.

Sliver of normalcy

Sinan wipes the sweat that has beaded on her forward with the back of her keeper glove and gets ready for another shot.

It bends through the hot, humid air and Sinan dives, deflecting it away from the net.

She stands and smiles. It's a good save.

It's a good feeling.

“It's been so helpful,” Sinan said. “Having Blair and his camp, it's amazing, especially for goalies.”

It's been just as good for other players.

When the playing starts after 30 minutes of weight training and 30 minutes of speed and agility work, the game faces come on.

During the first week of the camp, though, the soccer portion was just individual ball work, but as the regulations loosened in the second week, Gerlach was able to get mini-games of three-on-three, five-one-five and even seven-on-seven.

The level of play has been breathtaking, Gerlach said.

“It's been fantastic,” Gerlach said.

Part of that has to do with the pent-up energy and thirst for competition from the campers.

“It's like letting the horses run,” Gerlach said.

Butler graduate and Edinboro University junior Brittnie Spithaler has been particularly impressed by the play she has seen, especially from the high school level players at the camp.

Spithaler has 11 goals — four of them game-winners — and seven assists in 38 matched for the Fighting Scots in her two seasons there.

“All the players who are in this camp are very exceptional players,” Spithaler said.

Spithaler and the other college-aged players have been mingling with the high school players in the camp, which will conclude next week.

It's been nice to simply talk soccer with someone who understands the grind, Spithaler said.

“It's been awhile since I've been able to do that,” she said. “We can relate to each other so well. It's been nice to talk to someone who knows what I'm going through, too.”

Spithaler and Sinan, once high school rivals, can commiserate about the delay of their college seasons, as well.

The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference suspended fall sports until the spring semester, making players like Spithaler and Sinan have to wait to get back onto the pitch.

Sinan's older sister, Mary, is a goalkeeper at Edinboro.

“It's kind of a bummer to wait all that extra time for only a possibility of playing,” Morgan Sinan said. “I'm hoping for the best, but you never know what's going to happen.”

That's what has made this camp a little extra special for all involved.

It's been an opportunity to feel normal again.

It's satiated a longing to play and compete again — at least for now.

“I've been itching to get back into a field,” Sinan said, “and unfortunately this is as close as anyone is going to get to it for a long time, probably. So, at least we had this. It's just been amazing.”

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Mike Kilroy

Mike Kilroy

I joined the Butler Eagle in January of 2000 after spending five years at the Steubenville Herald-Star and Weirton Daily Times, where I did everything from editing the sports section to knocking snow and ice off the Associated Press satellite dish. I graduated from Kent State University in 1994 with a degree in magazine journalism and a minor in skipping class. My honors include a 2007 Associated Press award for feature writing, a 2005 and 2007 Keystone award for column writing and a 2003 Golden Quill award for feature writing. I have a high game of 255 at Wii Bowling.