Soccer players 50 and older get their kicks in Elverta tournament

With a freshly swallowed Motrin and cleats snug on her feet, Monica Guillen had one goal: To score a few of them against the opposing team.

Guillen’s team, Still Kickin’ of Sacramento, prepared Saturday morning for a match against OR/WA United from Portland, Ore., in the Sports for Life Soccer Tournament. The tournament, which concludes this afternoon, hosts more than 500 players 50 and older for a weekend of senior soccer at Elverta’s Cherry Island Soccer Complex.

These grandparents, and others eligible to join the AARP, showed up with shin guards, pain relievers and a time-honored competitive spirit. The teams are divided into 50-plus and 60-plus divisions for men and women, taking such names as Silver Belles, Gray Wolves and Los Abuelitos – or “The Grandparents.”

“I’d never touched a soccer ball until I was 37,” said Guillen, 69, of Sacramento. “My kids all played and I’d sit on the sidelines and think, ‘This is a great game.’ ”

The Sports for Life tournament, in its seventh year, is sponsored by Sacramento’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The department’s 50+ Wellness Program also offers yoga and camping for seniors, but its annual soccer tournament now draws players from throughout the West Coast.

With up to seven games being played at once, the tournament sounds like a cacophony of goalies punting soccer balls, the clacking of cleats striking shin guards and bits of cheering in Spanish.

“We have a whole mix of folks out there,” said Rosanne Bernardy, superintendent of Older Adult Services for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “Culturally, it’s a big sport. We have people out there with Mexican heritage who have been playing all their lives. They’re thrilled to keep playing.”

Soccer has emerged as the hottest sport around the Sacramento area. A sell-out crowd of more than 20,000 crammed Hughes Stadium on April 26 to witness the debut of Sacramento Republic FC, a new USL Pro league team.

Soccermania will kick off again June 12 with the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a monthlong tournament that finds local pubs flooded with soccer fans.

While once considered an also-ran sport next to baseball and American football, youth soccer grew into a traditional part of childhood through the 1970s and 1980s. According to US Youth Soccer, the sport has grown from 100,000 players nationwide in 1974 to 3 million currently.

Those who were soccer moms and dads during the sport’s initial burst of popularity are now finding themselves in a uniform.

Dawn Cole, Still Kickin’s goalie, was introduced to the game by watching her three sons play youth soccer in the 1970s. Cole was a longtime softball player before switching to soccer at age 47, and co-founded Still Kickin’ 15 years ago. Now, you’ll find the 65-year-old Cole playing the game at least three times a week – twice in an indoor league, along with weekly outdoor matches.

“The people out here are in good shape,” she said. “They’re staying active not only with soccer, but in all aspects of their lives.”

The senior-age soccer matches aren’t casual kick-arounds. Most of the teams are hungry to win, with players occasionally colliding into one another and referees being implored from the sidelines to call various fouls.

According to Bernardy, the senior men are especially competitive and try to stack their teams with as many younger players as possible. The women’s teams include some of the oldest players in the tournament. Two players on Still Kickin’ are 70 years old. The weekend’s oldest player, Rosemary Alexander, is 72 and plays for San Jose’s West Coast 60 United.

Still Kickin’ entered as a tournament favorite. The team was a silver medalist at the Torino 2013 World Masters Games, an Olympics-style event for athletes ages 30 and up.

For Sharon Murray, a 66-year-old player for Still Kickin’, tournaments aren’t just social events. They offer a timeless competitive kick.

“It’s about having a great time,” Murray said. “We see some of (our competitors) once a year, and we’ve become friends. But when the game begins, all bets are off.”

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