By Jay Young
LAKEWOOD - As director of the Lakewood YMCA, Tom Anderson gets a lot of questions about sports. One of the questions that he answers on occasion is: What is the most popular sport in town?
From the left, Sam, Luke and Ben Meyer try out the new Lakewood YMCA indoor soccer surface.
P-J photo by Jay Young
If you wanted to try and answer that question 25 or 30 years ago, it would have been easy to narrow it down to two choices - football or basketball.
But over the past decade or two, another sport has crept into the running for the area's most popular pastime. And if you go strictly by numbers, it is clear that soccer is becoming one of the hottest sports in Chautauqua County.
"I don't think that (any other sport) has 70 teams,'' Anderson said. ''This past winter we had 70 (indoor) teams a week.''
In his time as director, Anderson has watched the sport go from a mostly unknown European game to one of the YMCA's most popular programs.
"When the high school leagues started is when it really took off," he said of the change. "Every year it has just really grown. There are times when I don't have space."
It was around 1991 when the YMCA received a donation from Paul Bush to upgrade its facilities, and at that time soccer was not a top priority. Originally there were plenty of people who wanted to devote the money to making repairs to the roof and tennis courts, but Anderson had other ideas.
"We looked at it and five courts were probably enough for tennis, and we needed to add an element. It had to be something different," Anderson recalled. "If we fix the roof, that's not too exciting. That's really not going to entice people to come.''
Anderson's decision to build the new indoor court came just at the right time when soccer was really starting to hit the mainstream in America, and since then the interest has expanded every year.
"Long story short, the roof still leaks (on occasion), but we have thousands of people coming through here to play soccer," Anderson said.
The original addition to the YMCA that allowed for indoor soccer was built as a multi-purpose facility, with roller hockey and other games in mind.
In most ways, it still resembles the original court today, but there have been some important changes. The first surface for the court was an all-purpose sports rug designed for a variety of different games, but over the years that has been replaced a number of times. Now the court has gotten its newest facelift, and features a brand new futsal-style surface.
"So this surface we have now is the official United States futsal surface, so it is very forgiving on your feet and it has excellent grip," Anderson said.
Futsal is the association name for indoor 5-on-5 soccer, which is played on a smaller court and favors players with technical skills and quick dribbling.
For the thousands of soccer players who travel from all over the region to play in Lakewood, the futsal surface will only improve what is already one of the most popular venues. The material also works well for roller hockey and other games that YMCA patrons enjoy playing on their indoor court.
Of the 70 teams that participate in Lakewood's indoor soccer leagues, there are already squads that travel from northwestern Pennsylvania.
Now it looks like players may journey from even farther away to take a shot from the new Lakewood floor.
"We have a power league with the college players and we get teams from Penn State Behrend and from Olean," said Anderson.
Nate Schmitt, originally from Saint Mary's, Pa., has played indoor soccer throughout the region and is looking forward to the YMCA's new court surface.
After playing in Lakewood for the past four years, Schmitt will get his first shot at playing on a futsal court tonight in the championship game of the Coed Adult League.
"Even before the new surface had been put down, I was of the opinion that Lakewood had the best facility," Schmitt said. "It has great space and dimensions for the 5-v-5 with a goalie style.''
From Schmitt's perspective, Anderson and the YMCA staff have created such a popular venue because of the way that they organize leagues as well as their excellent facilities.
"The venue becomes personal, and I think that these guys have done a good job of making a good relationship with the players," Schmitt said.
Adult indoor soccer games that are played in Lakewood feature two referees, which has been a key ingredient in bringing back teams from outside the area.
"I will say that when you look at the standings for each league that they have up, the different high school leagues, what you are seeing is that teams are traveling significant distances," said Schmitt.
Following the success of the World Cup and soccer's most recent increase in American popularity, it is hard to imagine a better investment for the Lakewood YMCA than its shining new floor.