The select team of Naptown United, a newly formed nonprofit club aimed at providing affordable, competitive soccer options to inner-Indianapolis kids, won a championship in its first fall season.
They did it without a home field or properly fitted uniforms. They did it despite being unable to field a full 11 players for every game. They did it with teammates coming together despite radically different backgrounds and English-language skills, including a recently resettled refugee from Afghanistan anchoring the defense. They did it without lines drawn onto their non-regulation sized practice field.
And they did it without a net.
"We used leftover Indiana Soccer nets, and they didn't quite fit," Coach Isabel Schlebecker said. "But we had all the kids try to fit it with zip ties. We tied a second net to the first to get it to fit."
Naptown United is in its infancy. It has no office, website or full-time employees. Schlebecker is given a small stipend for gas.
Most of its board of directors is made up of volunteers and parents. The adults organize everything — carpools to games as far as 90 miles away, coordinating a team schedule, providing balls and other equipment, finding a way to allow any child whose family can't afford the $60 registration to play.
The board even chalked lines onto the field at Willard Park the kids sometimes use through a good relationship with Indy Parks.
"It lasted three weeks until the rain made it unusable," Schlebecker said.
The fall select team included a child from Afghanistan who needed transportation help to get to practice. In the spring, Naptown's first competitive cycle, the team featured a member from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as kids from at least five local schools, some of which were also English learners.
"It's really great to see how they've all come together to form their own little community," Schlebecker said. "We adults know what the struggle is on our end: jerseys, field space and so on. But the kids can't tell. They show up on gamedays and play with everything they've got."
Schlebecker, an Indianapolis native, said as a child she was priced out of the highly competitive travel soccer league's now concentrated in the city's suburbs. She explained costs for these leagues can balloon into the thousands of dollars.
Despite playing some games with eight or nine players against full teams of 11 with substitutes, Naptown only lost two games in the fall and routinely routed its opposition.
Andy Beck, father of Naptown's top scorer, Mikey, recruited Schlebecker, whom he worked with at the Kheprw Institute. Beck now runs the city's tenant advocacy and anti-eviction program, and Schlebecker is a program analyst for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"There's untapped talent downtown, in Center Township and outside of it," said Beck, who lives on the near east side. "If we could capture those kids and provide a place to play at a higher level while remaining financially accessible with working faculties and coaches, that would be tremendous."
He credited Schlebecker with getting the fledgling club this far.
"The coaches did a great job of taking care of the culture and the kids first, creating a loving atmosphere and helping them grow on and off the field," he said.
What is your organization's mission?
As many of Naptown's organizers come from Indianapolis' nonprofit and service sectors, the mission statement is clearly defined: "We’re a new soccer club dedicated to creating equitable access to competitive and recreational soccer for inter-Indianapolis youth," Schlebecker said.
How many people do you serve?
The U-15 select team consists of about 20 kids, and the nonprofit also manages two recreational leagues of around 1,000 children under the Near East Soccer Alliance. The hope is to soon establish a U-11 or U-13 select team and perhaps a travel team.
The team and leagues are open to any resident of the Indianapolis area.
What is your organization’s No. 1 need?
Both Schlebecker and Beck had plenty to say on the subject.
A playing field would be a good start — preferably one with real nets and lines, Schlebecker said. The team currently borrows field space from either Willard Park or Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, but both sites are unable to regularly host home games.
Equipment and uniform donations would be welcome.
There is also a huge need, as there is for most recreational sports, for volunteer referees. Anyone may run Naptown's recreational games, but a short course is needed to referee select-level games.
Beck said scholarship donations for those who can't afford the $60 registration would also help.
"The alternative for many of these kids is no soccer at all," he said.
Volunteers who could help lift some of the administrative burden of scheduling games and field time off of the coaches are also needed.
How can people get involved?
In addition to referees, volunteer coaches from the U-5 to U-14 level are needed.
Naptown United will soon establish an advisory board, and Schlebecker encouraged anyone with any skills to offer — graphic design, marketing, making jerseys, even just time — to reach out through the board's email address: email@example.com.
Beck said the Naptown teams and supported recreational leagues are also ripe for corporate sponsorship.
"There is a tremendous opportunity for a professional sports team to help," Beck said. "Even players in the city's adult recreational leagues could volunteer as coaches or referees."
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Rory Appleton is the pop culture reporter at IndyStar. Contact him at 317-552-9044 and firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @RoryDoesPhonics.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Naptown United offers affordable soccer for inner-Indianapolis kids