SYAA grows right along with Suffolk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 3, 2006

During its busiest seasons, the spring and fall, 5,000 players, coaches, officials and spectators use the facilities of Suffolk Youth Athletic Association each week.

That’s a far cry from when the organization started 25 years ago; it’s even a far cry from when Kristi Hight was introduced to SYAA six years ago.

&uot;When I first started with SYAA, there were three soccer fields which were shared with baseball fields.

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&uot;Now we have our own property, eight fields and our own concession stand.

We want to expand with two more fields.

&uot;The city is growing,&uot; said Everett Birdsong, SYAA president, &uot;so the need for youth sports will grow, too.&uot;

In just the last year, the SYAA soccer program has gone from 324 players to 412 kids this past fall.

Overall, in soccer, field hockey, baseball and softball, more than 1,700 kids have been active in SYAA this year.

As Suffolk steadily, but quickly, grows, SYAA is trying to keep up.

The non-profit, entirely volunteer organization is more than halfway through a $575,000 capital campaign.

The campaign, started in 2002, has already been able to purchase land across from the original SYAA property on King’s Fork Road, complete eight top-quality soccer fields, build additional parking lots, a new concession stand for the soccer complex and pay for a city-mandated turning lane on King’s Fork Road.

On the original SYAA property, many of the baseball and softball needs, such as parking, fencing, landscaping, the concession stand and maintenance equipment have been completed.

Future improvements still include, for the soccer complex, permanent restrooms, even more parking, two more fields and lights.

&uot;We still use the baseball fields because of the lights, especially for practice,&uot; said Hight.

&uot;The biggest complaints we have now are about the restrooms,&uot; said Birdsong, &uot;we need to make them handicap-accessible, and that we need lights on the soccer side.

&uot;Especially this time of year, as we got late into our fall season, the shorter days make it difficult.&uot;

Two more baseball/softball fields are planned as well, which means when everything that is hoped for is done, according to SYAA board member and officials commissioner Geoff Payne, &uot;once everything is done, we expect to be able to double the size of the program.

We want to cater better to the needs of the city.

The quality of SYAA’s new soccer complex is becoming well known around the region.

SYAA recently joined TASL (Tidewater Advanced Soccer League), which includes advanced, more competitive teams from Smithfield to Virginia Beach.

According to Birdsong, coaches and organizers for TASL are already impressed with SYAA.

&uot;They’ve already been calling us,&uot; said Birdsong about having regional tournaments hosted at SYAA.

&uot;When we have heavy rain, our fields drain perfectly.

We are able to start playing again at least the next day if not later on the same day.

Baseball and softball tournaments are already a constant success for SYAA and bringing similar soccer events to Suffolk is now easily foreseeable.

SYAA is certainly seeking monetary donations from local businesses or individuals, but money is not the only way to help SYAA continue its growth.

Mike Burnett of Sign Media in Hampton helped SYAA a great deal, said Birdsong, and without writing a check.

Burnett held a workshop on how to make attractive, consistent signs throughout a facility such as SYAA.

Burnett made and donated some signs to SYAA, then SYAA volunteers were able to take what Burnett taught them and continue the project.

Individuals or businesses that donate $1,000 or more will have their name displayed on a Donor Appreciation Board in the park.

There are additional naming opportunities from anything from walkways and scoreboards to fields or the whole facility, ala FedEx Field or U.S. Cellular Field.

&uot;It’s challenging because everything is done by volunteers,&uot; said Payne.

&uot;The city doesn’t do anything, we are able to keep this going because of amazing efforts by a lot of dedicated individuals.

&uot;I think the city would be worse off without (SYAA), if a city can’t provide recreational opportunities to families, they will be less likely to move here.&uot;

Donations, leading to better facilities, mean that SYAA can expand on its original and current philosophy of helping the youth of Suffolk and the surrounding areas.

&uot;Everyone plays, we play so that everyone has fun, and we want it to be fair,&uot; said Payne.

With SYAA’s growth, field hockey is also a growing sport.

On Saturdays in December and January, players ages 8-18 are busy either learning field hockey or improving their skills.

&uot;It’s complimentary,&uot; said Payne, &uot;because Suffolk’s schools do so well with field hockey, it attracts more people to our league, and hopefully, our league makes the school teams better.

This upcoming season, Payne said there will be more than 100 players in the field hockey league.

&uot;In Virginia Beach, the schools have middle school leagues.

So by having this program for kids eight years old and up, we can give young kids a chance to learn the game.&uot;

The added space and fields gives SYAA the possibility of adding more sports in the coming years.

Starting this past season, Special Olympics is calling SYAA home and that organization is already growing quickly at SYAA.

Lacrosse, football, a skate park and a BMX bike park are possibilities according to Birdsong.

Regardless of sport, the philosophy and environment SYAA wants to give to youth remains the same.

&uot;It’s family-oriented.

It’s like one big family out there,&uot; said Hight about why she became active in SYAA in the first place.

Her 11-year-old son, Austin, can’t spend enough time on SYAA’s soccer fields and he is on the U12 TASL team.

Hight played soccer for 10 years and her husband, who had little soccer experience before they joined SYAA, is now a soccer coach.

&uot;Everyone gets equal playing time and everyone is treated the same,&uot; said Hight.

Participation, fun, skills, fair play and family involvement are the key points of SYAA’s philosophy.

One recent challenge has been balancing the incorporation of TASL with SYAA’s philosophy.

There have been postseason or &uot;all-star&uot; teams in baseball and softball for many years at SYAA.

&uot;We’ve had movements before to make this all select, but we’ve said, ‘no that’s not what we want’,&uot; said Birdsong.

Birdsong says SYAA’s volunteers are very committed to the continuing SYAA’s same goals.

About the in-house season, Birdsong said nothing has, or will change, &uot;everyone who goes out for a team will play.

There is no possibility of cuts and no one is going to sit on the bench.&uot;

&uot;All of the volunteers come out because they want to give back to the community and to the kids,&uot; said Hight.

For the whole association, an estimated 20,000 volunteer hours go into SYAA per year.

&uot;It’s been very seldom, at least that I’ve seen, that someone wants to be a part of SYAA for different reasons.&uot;