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Joel McNeece: Soccer is sweet (potato)

Joel McNeece

Joel McNeece

The new season began for me last weekend by witnessing some solid tackling, good ball control, wonderful passing and strong defensive play, but I’m not talking about Friday night’s football games.

Sunday evening I attended my first Ole Miss soccer game where the Lady Rebels defeated Northwestern State University 3-0.

I’ve loved what is commonly referred to around the world as “the beautiful game” all my life. I played, coached and officiated soccer until meeting my wife Lisa and moving two decades ago to Calhoun County where the sport is virtually non-existent, at least it was.

That’s about to change this year with Vardaman High School introducing soccer to the Calhoun County sports scene. VHS Principal Porter Casey began discussing the possibility of starting a soccer program with me a few years ago looking to expand opportunities for his students. I offered support and encouragement along the way, noting how I would enjoy the chance to cover high school soccer for the paper and support the game I’ve loved for so long. I didn’t foresee those conversations leading to an invite to be the Rams’ first head soccer coach, however.

Early trepidation yielded to excitement and now I can’t wait to hit the practice field in October and to see the Rams begin their first season of the original “football” in November.

Meanwhile,  I’m trying to refresh my soccer knowledge and make certain I can translate the game I’ve long loved to the modern playing field.

I wanted to go see the Lady Rebels play Sunday night to watch the pre-game warmups as much as the actual game and found it all very entertaining.

The Ole Miss soccer facility is first class, with a giant video board constantly showing replays of the action, good seating, which was packed on this wonderful weather night, and a very enthusiastic crowd.

Several have asked why I didn’t go see the men play, prompting me to explain Ole Miss, like Southern Miss, Mississippi State and most of the SEC don’t play NCAA men’s soccer. They play club soccer, where no scholarships are awarded.

Most schools attribute the lack of men’s soccer on campus to Title IX and its requirement for gender equity in college athletic scholarships. When 85 scholarships are being awarded in football, that requires a lot of women’s only sports to balance.

Ole Miss for example has soccer, volleyball and rifle teams for females only. Currently, only two SEC schools have men’s soccer teams – South Carolina and Kentucky – and they compete in Conference USA.

Money can’t be denied as a factor, too. If these universities thought men’s soccer could generate substantial revenue for the athletic department, they would be eager to start the program.

I think it needs to happen and believe one day all our schools will be playing soccer as the game continues to grow in popularity at every level.

But for now, my biggest concern is in the Sweet Potato Capital of the World and making sure our Rams play “a beautiful game.”

Joel McNeece is publisher of The Calhoun County Journal in Bruce, MS. You may email him at joelmcneece@gmail.com.