Sports

Pumas soccer wants to serve Kitsap youth

Youth development high on this pro franchise’s to-do list.

Homegrown talent, inspired to go pro in Kitsap.

Romantic, yet attainable, it’s a vision shared by the three-man staff at Kitsap Soccer Club headquarters in Bremerton, home to the Pumas.

The county’s first professional soccer franchise is sprinkling seeds up and down the Peninsula, selling season tickets for the inaugural season, recruiting players and coaches, building the staff, developing community partnerships.

And? Cultivating Kitsap County – and the surrounding area – into a soccer hotbed, beginning with the youth population.

“Our dream scenario would be to have the best young player in Kitsap play for us year one,” said executive director Ben Pecora, who has previous ties to Major League Soccer (MLS).

Pecora and club owner Robin Waite insist one of their top priorities in bringing pro soccer to Kitsap is to bolster the climate of youth soccer by partnering with the area’s clubs and school districts, and offering summer camps and coaching clinics, among others.

“We’re building this in as part of the fiber of the club,” Pecora said. “It’s a big part of what we’re doing. I think we’re unique in that regard even though we’re a new franchise.”

The club hired 27-year-old Scotsman James Ritchie, who has coached and played in both Scotland and the United States, to build the youth program, giving the franchise a face and presence throughout the county.

Ritchie coaches U12 and U11 soccer on Bainbridge Island, where he currently lives, and has hosted summer soccer camps for children as young as 3 years old.

Pecora met Ritchie through coaching and is convinced he has the skill set and intangibles to build a successful youth base.

“Kitsap’s lucky to have a coach of this caliber in the system,” Pecora said. “I see him get things out of kids that surpasses many of the coaches, if not all the coaches, I’ve seen over here.”

For Ritchie, striking a chord in young soccer players is essential for the sport’s survival and popularity, particularly in the United States where kids have the choice to play traditionally more popular sports while growing up.

“You’ve got to develop this deep-felt love (for soccer) at a young age, get them out, get them having fun,” Ritchie said. “It’s all about progression.”

Pecora said there is a gap between elementary school and high school when athletes and students, for whatever reason, turn to other sports and never return to soccer.

But with camps, clinics and classes in the works (official announcements are to come), Pecora and Ritchie believe the Pumas can bridge that gap.

“We’re providing that missing link,” Pecora said. “Now there’s a direct path and a logical view of that path all the way into the professional ranks.”

Ritchie wants to offer camps as far south as Port Orchard and north to Poulsbo and Bainbridge. That could come to fruition once the club begins signing players and coaches, who also could host camps and classes.

“We’re going to structure it in such a way that we can get as wide a range as we can, or take it to everyone,” Ritchie said. “Foremost, we want to work with the schools, we want to work with the clubs.”

The club has contacted nearly every local soccer club – Tracyton, North Kitsap, Bainbridge, Bremerton and others – but has yet to work closely with any school districts outside Bremerton.

The Pumas are working in conjunction with the Bremerton School District, which is allowing the club to play its home games at Memorial Stadium in exchange for field renovations.

And more partnerships are to come with schools.

“Realistically, no matter what we’re going to build partnerships with the youth,” Waite said. “Being tied in with youth at the high school level is crucial to what we’re doing because it allows those kids to see where they can go if they have any soccer talent at all.”

The professional franchise, Waite added, gives young Kitsap players an opportunity to further their careers without having to leave the area.

“As it is now the only vision you have is what’s going on in Seattle,” Waite said. “We want this to be Kitsap-based. All our focus, everything we’re doing is based on Kitsap.

“It’s more than Bremerton High School, it’s all the high schools. We don’t want to be exclusive.”

Bremerton Patriot Sports writer Wesley Remmer can be reached at wremmer@bremertonpatriot.com or (360) 308-9161.

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