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Soccer leagues kick up interest of youngsters

It's raining outside as the boys and girls file into the large, gray building.

Dressed in uniforms as if preparing for some kiddie war, they hurry in and take their places on the artificial turf.

Their arena is well-lit. The field is surrounded by walls. Yet this is not a war; it's a game. But it's no ordinary game.

The referee doesn't keep score, and he brings the two teams together in the center of the field for an interteam huddle at halftime. Sometimes he helps redirect wayward players who accidentally run toward the wrong goal.

Some players even forget about the game, choosing instead to wave to family and friends on the sidelines. Some trip over one another chasing after the ball.

Welcome to Gladden Park's gymnasium, home of St. Petersburg's indoor youth soccer league. On this day, the players are 4-year-olds.

Frank Seidl's two children play in this indoor youth soccer league. He regularly takes his son Ryan, 3, and daughter Amanda, 5, to Saturday afternoon games. He enjoys it as much as they do as he ferries them to and from their weekday practices and weekend games.

"It's a good activity," Seidl said. "If they like soccer, they can continue."

The indoor league is just one of the many youth soccer programs in Pinellas County.

From St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs, 8,300 young people ages 3 to 17 play soccer in the county's 15 leagues.

Les Ambush helped start the indoor program in 1984 to provide his son, who was then 6, with a chance to play. Since then, the league has grown steadily. More than 500 boys and girls ages 3 through 12 play in this citywide, indoor youth soccer league.

""We started with 47 kids and it spread by word of mouth. It was never really advertised," Ambush said. ""We have no funding from sponsors or anything like that. It's funded by the parents."

Henry Stein, past president of the Northeast Raiders Youth Association in St. Petersburg, has seen the sport grow.

The Raiders league, as with most leagues in the county, has three levels of play: developmental, recreational and competitive. There are girls teams and boys teams with coed teams for children younger than 6.

This season, more than 700 youths have registered to play, and Stein said he expects close to 1,000 next year.

Stein also said that this year more young women and girls are playing.

Nearly 30 percent of the 700 registered players are female.

Sisters Stephanie and Jessica De Biasio, of northeast St. Petersburg, have played soccer for eight and five years respectively. For the De Biasios and thousands of other young players in the area, soccer is more than just a game.

Dan and Janet De Biasio, the girls' parents, have taken an active role in their daughters' athletic activities. They encouraged Stephanie, 15, and Jessica, 11, to play soccer only if they really want to participate.

Stephanie plays in the Countryside club program and for St. Petersburg High School's girls soccer team. She is in the International Baccalaureate program and still finds time to play soccer.

She wants to play soccer in college and has made some sacrifices in pursuit of her goal.

"I miss a lot of things to do with my friends, but it's worth it," she said.

Jessica, who will enter Southside Fundamental Middle School in the fall, plays the game for a less compelling reason.

"It's a lot of fun," she said. "I just like playing."

Their parents said soccer has provided a sense of community for both the players and the parents on their daughters' teams.

"The girls become a big family as a team," Mrs. De Biasio said. ""It's a big bonding (experience). And the parents turn out and hang out together."

Dan De Biasio said soccer "does become an important part of your weekend activities because you do spend a lot of time with the (other) families."

Playing soccer has been beneficial to his daughters in other ways, De Biasio said.

""I think it's helped the kids (to have) a sense of duty and an objective," he said. "It really does become a part of your life."