Despite lack of a varsity team, ‘U’ men’s club soccer is strong

EditorâÄôs Note: This is the first part in a two-part series discussing the UniversityâÄôs menâÄôs intramural soccer program and the possibility of a varsity team in the future. The members of the UniversityâÄôs menâÄôs intramural soccer team characterize a love for soccer that can be seen in both male and female players at all levels of competition throughout Minnesota. âÄúWeâÄôve been playing forever, pretty much,âÄù club president Ben Bykowski said. Bykowski said he learned of the team on the Internet and has been playing for three years. The menâÄôs intramural soccer program on campus is divided into the Gold team and the Maroon team, the Gold team being the more competitive of the two. The teams use the UniversityâÄôs recreational fields on the St. Paul campus to practice and play. They have two mandatory practices each week and one optional practice, Bykowski said. The Gold team (7-3-3) plays roughly 20 games per year , including regional and national tournaments. The teamâÄôs competitive schedule includes local Division-III schools Hamline University, University of St. Thomas and Macalester College. This yearâÄôs national tournament will be held in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Bykowski said the team hopes to attend. Members of the squad also scrimmage regularly with the womenâÄôs varsity soccer team. WomenâÄôs head coach Mikki Denney Wright said the Gophers have a good relationship with the club team. Bykowski said the practices help to improve both the menâÄôs club team and womenâÄôs varsity squad. Club treasurer Eric Mackay, who has also been with the team for three years, said he had looked into playing college soccer locally at the D-III level. In fact, he was offered a spot to play at Hamline, but chose to come to the University instead. âÄúThereâÄôs a lot of opportunities to do things [at the University],âÄù Mackay said. âÄúThatâÄôs what really brought me here. âÄúItâÄôs nice to know that âĦ we made the right choice,âÄù he said. The commitment players like Mackay show can be measured as much in their financial investment to the team as it can in the time they devote to games and practice. The program can get up to 20 percent of its annual budget funded by the University, Bykowski said. The rest of each teamsâÄô expenses are funded by participatory fees, which range from around $300 for the Maroon team to roughly $350 for the Gold team. If the team makes it to national competitions, travel expenses oftentimes come out of the playersâÄô pockets, he said, adding the team may drive to nationals in Alabama rather than spend money on plane tickets. The club also gets involved in some fundraising events throughout the year, though Bykowski said he thinks the team could improve its fundraising efforts. Much of the fundraising comes from the teamâÄôs involvement with coach Allan MerrickâÄôs youth soccer clinics, he said. The teamâÄôs largest fundraiser of the year, Bykowski said, is MerrickâÄôs annual Domeinate tournament. Domeinate, hosted each spring at the Metrodome, is a four-on-four tournament for youth players and includes an ongoing skills competition. Club players are paid to help run the skills competition, referee and monitor the field, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting menâÄôs club soccer. Merrick, who is in his 10th year coaching the club team, has been involved with the sport as both a player and coach since 1967. âÄúI create and maintain the best playing environment I can,âÄù he said. The level of skill among his players is high, he said, because there are many men on the team who could have played Division-I soccer, but opted to stay in state and play for the University instead. Club vice president and University senior Tim Boje praised MerrickâÄôs coaching style and said he transferred to the University after playing at a Division-II school in Wisconsin. He said he prefers the atmosphere at the University because the training regimen is less intense and more âÄúlaidback.âÄù âÄúHe still makes it fun and weâÄôre still really competitive,âÄù Boje said. âÄúYou get that intensity and itâÄôs still a good time overall.âÄù The teamâÄôs success and the presence of talented players within the program leaves many players on the team wondering whether a varsity menâÄôs soccer program, which has never existed at the University, may be a possibility sometime in the near future. âÄúJust to have that chance and have the opportunity even if I didnâÄôt make the team IâÄôd like to go and watch the guys,âÄù Boje said. âÄúItâÄôd still be a lot of fun. I think it would be a good thing overall.âÄù