After 18 years, Fuller soccer is still having a ball
In the Fuller Park Soccer Club, the goal is not so much about winning as it is about community. The club, whose season lasts for six weeks in the spring and six in autumn, is not the product of the Minneapolis Park Board but rather the parents of the Kingfield, Tangletown, Lynnhurst and East Harriet neighborhoods. The club plays its games at the former site of Margaret Fuller Elementary School at 48th Street between Harriet and Grand avenues, and at the commons at Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St.
The club kicked off its 18th year on Sept. 4, fielding 22 teams and 250 players between the ages of 5 and 8. Kids got to meet their coaches and teammates, practice drills, learn the rules of the game and get their T-shirts for the upcoming season.
Mary Coulter is team manager of the Zaggers, the team for which her 6-year-old daughter Julia plays. The Tangletown resident has volunteered for four years. Asked what brings her back, Coulter replied, "It’s a social thing. It makes Minneapolis feel like a small town. You recognize parents and kids who play soccer in the league at Kowalski’s, Mr. Movies and at church. It’s one of the most cohesive aspects of our neighborhood."
The club has 10 teams of 5- and 6-year-olds and 12 teams of 7- and 8-year-olds. Teams average a dozen players with six on the field at a time. The teams are co-ed, with an equal number of boys and girls; everybody gets the same playing time, regardless of ability.
For most parents, it’s the first time to see their little ones in action. Moms and dads can be found on Saturday mornings cheering on the sidelines, coffee mugs in hand, on camping chairs and blankets. Over the years, thousands of kids have worn Fuller’s club colors; some are now among the best high school players in the city.
In its early years, Fuller soccer filled a vacuum left by neighborhood schools, which were mostly closed in the ’70s during desegregation. The soccer club became an important neighborhood institution where parents meet neighbors and kids make friends with teammates just down the block who go to different grade schools.
Doug White, who coaches the Growl, admits he didn’t know much about the game when he started. It doesn’t matter; he and his family have lots of fun. His wife Kris, the team manager, handles the phone calling and snack assignments. The White triplets — Greta, Aidan and Conner — wear the Growl team color, dark yellow.
"It’s amazing how many parents come to this with no experience," said White, a Lynnhurst resident. "When I was a kid, soccer was something they played in Europe. I didn’t know anyone in Northeast Minneapolis where I grew up who played soccer. But it’s a good workout, kids learn coordination and the rules, and they can start playing before any baseball league."
Asked how his team did last year he replied, "This is a fun league and nobody keeps track," White said, pausing. "Well, actually I did keep track. The kids had a rough season last fall, then they came back in spring and dominated."
Coaches call that common. A team will get a group of 5-year-old rookies in the fall who spend most of the season learning the fundamentals, who may have a record like 2 wins and 8 losses. It might include little girls twirling their hair and staring at the clouds as a swarm of kids dash past them in hot pursuit of the ball, and little boys who prefer digging in the dirt to attending to the action downfield. However, over the winter, they quite often absorb what they’ve learned in the fall to the point where that same team will be 8-2 the following spring.
Conner White, a 1st grader at Burroughs Community School, said he likes to score goals and make new friends. After a tough contest, he looks forward to the post-game snack. His favorite treat is the purple-blue Kool-Aide Jammer along with a chocolate Chewy Bar.
The club was started in 1985 by Tangletown resident Carl Franzen, whose home is across the street from Fuller Park. He coached his three sons through the league: Ted; Elliot, who currently plays sweeper for Gustavus College; and his youngest son, Flynn, a midfielder for the Holy Angels varsity team.
"When the school district tore down Fuller Elementary School in 1975 and gave the land over to the Park Board, it became a hangout for teens who drank beer, smoked pot and swore at the parents who came by," said Franzen. "But with the advent of the soccer league, young children and parents congregated there and the teens left almost immediately."
The original club started with four teams, all of which still exist: the Wave, the Bouncers, the Lightening and the Zaggers.
"That name came from the Minnesota Kicks soccer games," Franzen said. "In the rowdy section where the fans were often inebriated, they had a Kicks cheer which went Zig-Zag-Zig-Zag-Hoi-Hoi-Hoi. I thought Zaggers would be a fun name for a team."
Though he is no longer involved, Franzen remains the club’s institutional memory. He still has the original size-3 game ball from Mexico that that the club used in its early years, with patches of red, brown, green, white and blue.
"It wasn’t a very good ball," Franzen said. "It didn’t bounce very well, and during the cold autumn games, it became hard as a rock. When a kid got hit in the face, the arm or a leg, it would really sting. We retired it after three seasons."
Todd Larson and his 8-year-old son Elliot, Lynnhurst residents, have played for the purple-shirted Rhinos the past three seasons as coach and player, respectively. Todd Larson said the upper league is different in that the kids have a bit more physical ability, are more competitive and are better able to control the ball. "They are actually able to get some good plays going, where they make passes and set kids up for shots on goal."
Not only have Fuller alumni such as South High varsity starters Colin Baker and Evan Mitchell grown with the game, so have the parents. Steve Baker, a Kingfield resident, coached his three children through the Fuller league. When it was time for his kids to move up to traveling and Park Board teams, he moved up, too. Baker currently coaches his son Kyle’s 12-year-old team for the Westside Football Club.
Becky Wright, a Tangletown resident and head of the club’s steering committee said they rarely have problems finding parent volunteers. "Some teams have 12 players and 8 parents signing up as coach," she said. "Seeing the kids happy and the parents participating in something so positive makes it all worthwhile."