Coach teaches life lessons to world’s silliest soccer team

You may know him as Steve Starnes, but I call him “Coach.” That’s even how he’s listed in my cellphone directory.

I met him five years ago when my daughter, Riley, was assigned to his YMCA soccer team. The poor guy volunteered to be in charge of a dozen 5-year-old girls who cared more about playing Disney princesses than playing sports.

Talk about patience, I marveled at his ability to calmly tell the girls to stop picking dandelions, quit turning cartwheels and leave each others’ hair alone so we can learn how to play kick, pass and throw.

It seemed like a losing battle as the Pumas played what we called “amoeba ball,” swarming like a shapeless single-celled organism around the ball and aimlessly kicking it in whatever direction we happened to be facing.

But over the years, the girls came to love and respect their coach, and even learn a few things about the game. We parents watched in awe as the girls blossomed from silly little girls to, well, silly little soccer players.

While other teams in the league saw their rosters change over the years, our core group somehow stayed together. I think it had more to do with the girls liking their coach and teammates more than the sport of soccer itself.

It was amazing to watch them progress over the years. You could almost see the light bulbs popping up over their heads with every season as they learned to work together instead of stealing the ball from one another.

I got the chance to fill in as coach three times over the years when Coach couldn’t make it. It was just enough for me to gain a new level of respect for the job he did as I wilted under the pressure of “Can I play offense?”, “Will you tie my shoe?” and “Can I go to the bathroom?” I did manage to go undefeated (2-0-1), but a couple more games and I might have gone to jail for child abuse.

Not coach, who never seemed to lose his cool around the kids, even when they didn’t hustle during the game but then sprinted full speed to the snack bag as soon as the final whistle blew. A tough loss was quickly erased by a cupcake.

After five seasons, the Pumas played their final game last week in losing the league championship game. There were tears, but more so because it was the last time they would play together and for Coach than the defeat itself. He is hanging up his whistle and the league is breaking up the Pumas.

Some of the girls will keep playing soccer at a higher level, while others will quit playing because they won’t have the same coach and teammates. But they will all remember the five years they spent together and under his leadership and the friendships they built on the soccer pitch.

He taught them about a lot more than soccer, like sportsmanship, trying your best and being good teammates. I couldn’t have asked for a better role model to guide my child through her first youth sports experience.

Things have changed a lot since I was a kid. I remember a football coach who lost money betting on our team against a fellow coach and then taking it out on us; a basketball coach who was a police officer telling me to “take out” an opposing player; and another football coach who cussed us and called us names, then wondered why we weren’t responding to his motivational techniques.

That makes me even happier to know my daughter has played for someone who has treated her like his own and helped her have a positive sports experience that she will carry with her for the rest of her career and life.

Thanks for everything, Coach. Or is it Steve now?

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