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Soccer program crowded by its success

Each week, about 500 North Pinellas kids scramble onto the fields at Canal Park for soccer practice.

But on Saturday mornings, the kids put on their cleats and shin guards and travel as far as Brandon to play their games.

"We have three high school teams who played in August, September, October who never got to play a home game," said Ken Elliott, president of the Oldsmar Soccer Club. "They were very upset because all of their games were away."

That's because there are too many sports teams and not enough space at the 47-acre park, city officials and parents say.

For the fast-growing soccer league, even practice can be inconvenient. During football season, soccer teams practiced in shadows cast by lights on the next field over, Elliott said. They could not use the field at all on football game nights.

The lack of space at Canal Park is becoming more of a problem for the Oldsmar Soccer Club, an organization that doubled in membership this year. Since it was created in 1997, the club has grown from 80 to 480 kids.

Soccer parents say a few weeks ago, they were practicing at Canal Park when an adult flag football team kicked their kids off the field.

Now they're lobbying Oldsmar City Hall to light Field 3, which their teams use, and reconfigure it into two fields.

"I thought when the boys signed up, we would get a lighted field to practice on," said Martin Jackson, 40, of Oldsmar, whose 8-year-old twins play soccer. "They were almost practicing soccer in the dark."

Jim Harte, director of coaching for the Oldsmar Soccer Club, said the problem is there are 300 more kids playing soccer than football. The lease that was drafted five years ago doesn't reflect that change, he said.

"At the time our lease was drawn up, more kids played football than soccer," Harte said. "But what if now, way more kids play soccer and we're stuck in an old lease. Is there a fairness to that?"

Mayor Jerry Beverland says there's no room for expansion at Canal Park, which sits on land owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud.

The park opened in 1993 and includes three football/soccer fields, nine baseball fields and a BMX bicycle racing facility that opened last month.

"We have a 99-year lease, and they have allowed us to build the complex as we have so far," Beverland said. "They won't allow us to build any more fields out there."

City Manager Bruce Haddock says he will recommend the council include the $100,000 project to light the field used by the soccer teams in next year's budget, which begins in October 2003.

"Hopefully, it could be done by this time next year," he said.

Beverland has also turned over the soccer league's request for more time on the fields to Lynn Rives, director of parks and recreation. Rives could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, now that football season is over, the kids in Oldsmar Soccer Club are practicing under the lights. But on some nights, eight teams use one field.

"With 500 kids we really need the entire complex seven days a week," said Wayne Smith, a soccer team manager. "We may just show up and go out there if there's no one there until someone else tells us to leave."

_ Megan Scott can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or mscottsptimes.com.

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