Kicking soccer into gear

When the St. Maria Goretti Lambs open their soccer season next week, a valuable assistant coach will be missing from the sidelines. Marie DiStefano, who coached the Lambs’ junior-varsity team for seven years, decided to leave the post.

But she’ll take on a new position that potentially could help many more soccer players. DiStefano will become commissioner of the Catholic Youth Organization’s brand-new Region 6 soccer league. The South Philadelphia region already has CYO feeder programs for basketball, baseball, softball, football and volleyball. The soccer program is three years in the making and, by the third week in September, the games will begin.

"I look at all the sports down here, and they all have CYO teams except for soccer," said DiStefano, a physical-education teacher at St. Richard and St. Nicholas of Tolentine grade schools. "Playing three years has to be better than none. For me, it’s a dream come true."

At Goretti, quite a few athletic girls would come out for the team each year, but they generally weren’t trained soccer players, the commissioner said. Other than the Southeast Youth Athletic Association and Philadelphia Department of Recreation programs, younger athletes haven’t had much of a chance to learn the game.

But starting next month, six area parishes will have soccer teams. St. Monica, Stella Maris, St. Nicholas of Tolentine and Southwest Philadelphia’s St. Barnabas will field boys’ and girls’ squads, while Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Mary Interparochial will have boys’ teams only.

The players should get plenty of experience, as the schedule calls for each parish to play eight to 12 regular-season games plus playoffs. All six boys’ teams will make the Region Six playoffs, while the format for the girls has yet to be determined. The league initially will be restricted to varsity competition. Once interest grows, junior-varsity teams may be added.

DiStefano, a former all-star second-base player at South Philadelphia High, said she aspires to add other South Philly parishes to the league this fall and beyond.

Plans for a CYO soccer program began three years ago when DiStefano and Region Six athletic director Vince DiPietro sent out inquiries to local parishes to gauge interest. At the time, only two or three schools responded favorably. But DiPietro continued pitching the idea at meetings until it caught on.

"Soccer is big in various parts of the city except here in South Philadelphia," he noted.

DiStefano, who attended her first Philadelphia Charge game earlier this month, said soccer is becoming more popular due to the successes of the U.S. Olympic and World Cup teams. Locally, the Charge and Kixx help the cause, she said. At an Aug. 17 Charge playoff game, DiStefano noticed a large number of elementary- and high-school students in the crowd.

"Soccer still isn’t as big as I would like it to be here," DiStefano said.

That is one of the ways having a CYO program can help, the league organizers believe.

DiPietro originally considered starting a coed league, but said he was concerned with the safety factor.

"I am afraid the girls will get hurt, although some of the girls might hurt the boys," he said.

Once they decided to have separate boys’ and girls’ programs, the organizers needed to find soccer fields equipped with lights. Many of the coaches and officials aren’t immediately available after school, which pushes back the start times.

Now that the league is ready for action, it may take a few years to determine whether it has an impact on local high-school soccer.

Both Goretti and St. John Neumann High could use the help.

The Lambs, who joined the Catholic League eight years ago, are still looking for their first winning season. Their best season to date is 1998’s 3-7-1 mark. That was the year First Team All-Catholic forward Adria Vitale scored 21 goals and distributed 11 assists.

Neumann’s program also has been lopsided in the loss column. The squad ended a 35-game losing streak during the 1998 season, but finished 1-15 overall.

DiStefano plans to work closely with the Neumann and Goretti coaches to build up soccer in South Philadelphia. Introducing players to soccer in grade school and middle school could be the head start they need, the commissioner believes.

"When girls came to me as junior-varsity players, they didn’t understand the game," she said. "To know the game is a start."