Good Sports

Recreational and competitive sports are part of the fabric of life. Providing exercise, fellowship, a sense of belonging and opportunities for healthy competition, sports also provide a break from the work-centered routines of modern living. Especially after a year-plus period in which people couldn't responsibly gather -- much less engage in contact sports -- getting together on the playing field is an especially attractive proposition. And Western North Carolina is filled with opportunities to do that. For adults interested in most anything from traditional team sports to lesser-known pursuits (and a few oddball games) the choices are many. Bill Kopp takes a look at nearly a dozen of the region's most popular and established options.

General Adult Leagues
Most adult sports leagues in and around the region focus on one sport. A notable exception is Asheville Sport and Social Club, a for-profit business with an emphasis on fun and camaraderie rather than competition. In a world of niche sports organizations, the club comes closest to the something-for-everyone model.

"Recess with an after party"
Launched as a business in September 2015 by Chris Biggs and James Sellers, Asheville Sport and Social Club has grown rapidly to include a dizzying and eclectic array of sports. The club offers team, competitive and non-competitive opportunities including axe throwing, bowling, cornhole, dodgeball, flag football, kickball, mini golf, soccer, softball, wiffleball and yoga. Biggs says that the club's goal is use sports as a means of bringing people together in a fun and exciting way. "We focus on sportsmanship and socializing over competition," he emphasizes.

Even though the club is a for-profit enterprise, Biggs says that it's about much more than making money. "Our focus on bringing people together through games we all know how to play and remember from elementary school makes us much different than the average coed leagues," he says. The club defrays some of its expenses through sponsorships by local and national businesses including HiWire Brewing, Highland Brewing, Dalton Distillery, George Dickel, UpCountry Brewing, Grata Pizza, Hillman Beer, Asheville Promo, Yoga20, The Social and others.

The club operates year-round, with a focus on outside sports during spring, summer and fall, and a turn toward indoor sports during the winter months. Activities were suspended for most of 2020; prior to the onset of the pandemic, Biggs says that more than 2500 people were involved in its programs. "Post-Covid, it's trending slightly higher," he says with pride. "Our numbers made a huge jump once the vaccine was rolled out and people started feeling more comfortable around others." And the club is set up to accommodate that increase; Biggs notes that there's no limit on the number of people who can be involved.

Asheville Sport and Social Club uses and/or rents playing fields and gymnasiums around Asheville; its staff includes several part-time employees. Biggs says that both he and co-founder James Sellers attend most games and sports every night. Biggs' motivation is simple and straightforward, he admits: "My love of sports, beer and socializing! We gladly welcome anyone in our group, regardless of social status, age, gender affiliation, race or religion," he says. "We pride ourselves on loving everyone. Our slogan is 'Recess with an after party.'" For more information visit https://www.ashevillessc.com

Niche adult clubs and leagues
More tightly focused but no less appealing for the sport enthusiast, several niche sport organizations operate in Western North Carolina. Soccer is among the most popular adult team sport, but swimming and lacrosse are well represented in the region as well.

"Brotherhood through sport"
Established in 1994 by Tom Heck, Asheville Lacrosse Club competes in the southeastern men's Lacrosse club circuit. With a roster of about 50 members, the club is growing in numbers, especially since social gathering guidelines have been eased. "We also have a masters team," says the club's public relations board member, Rob Canan. That team over over-35-year old men numbers around 25 players, mostly "retired" ALC members playing this quintessentially American sport, says Canan.

The not-for-profit club's season is spring through fall, with the competitive component -- tournaments and the like -- starting in the summer. Late July brings the Blue Ridge Classic, the largest lacrosse tournament in the Southeast to Asheville, with more than 40 teams competing. But the club is active year-round. "In the winter months," says Canan, "we play indoor box lacrosse." Coordinating with Asheville's Parks and Recreation Department, the club schedules most of its activities at Asheville's Memorial Stadium; for the Blue Ridge Classic, the John B. Lewis Soccer Park and Wicked Weed Fields in Arden are used as well.

And while Asheville Lacrosse Club is an adult organization, Canan says that the group works closely with local public school teams as well as what he describes as "Asheville's premier youth lacrosse team," Asheville Empire Lacrosse Club.

A form of sponsorship for the club is furnished by Green Man Brewing. "We do some cross-brand marketing with them," Canan explains. "They gave us permission to use their Green Man character likeness on our jerseys." And, he adds with a chuckle, "they give us free beer from time to time."

Canan is deeply immersed in the sport. A lifelong lacrosse player, he's the assistant varsity boys lacrosse coach at T.C. Roberson High School. "When I moved to Asheville from St. Louis, I immediately looked to get involved in the local lacrosse community," he says. "I enjoy the brotherhood shared through the sport of lacrosse." There's much more info at https://www.facebook.com/Asheville-Lacrosse-Club-500570743398616/

"Sportsmanship incentive"
Asheville Buncombe Adult Soccer Association will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Since its founding the nonprofit organization has grown to include over 900 athletes in its 2021 season. Association president Felice Lopez Bell says that ABASA "strives to provide quality, competitive, and affordable soccer to the citizens for Asheville, Buncombe County, and Western North Carolina." With four leagues and ten divisions within those leagues, the association is designed to "give all players a place to call home, no matter their gender, skill level or schedule," Bell says.

"Whether you played soccer in middle school and haven't played since, or you've been playing pickup soccer for your entire life but haven't played 'organized' soccer for a while, or you've just finished playing for a Division 1 college, we probably have an appropriate division and a good team for you," Bell says. The divisions break down to accommodate most every sort of participant. ABASA has one women's division, three coed divisions, four open divisions, and three divisions for players 40 years of age and older.

ABASA offers league play three days each week throughout its spring-to-fall season. Most play takes place at the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex in East Asheville. And ABASA is committed to the idea that financial hardship shouldn't be a barrier to participation. "We strive to offer everybody the opportunity to play soccer," Bell says. "We have grant programs available for athletes who don't have the funding to pay for themselves."

Bell leads a volunteer board of 15 men and women. She first became involved with ABASA 12 years ago. "I am thankful for everything that I've gotten from being involved with ABASA: friendship, emotional support, stress management and exercise," she says.

Sportsmanship is at the heart of ABASA's mission. Bell believes the association's sportsmanship incentive program is unique in North Carolina. "We monitor sportsmanship using captains' match reports and provide free-play to teams who receive positive feedback from their opponents," she says.

"Walking out onto the fields on a Friday night and seeing everyone out kicking around on the turf under the lights is an amazing moment," Bell enthuses. "Returning to play this past spring was almost magical after the COVID lockdown. It made me realize how important it is for us to keep doing what we're doing. It's more than just the soccer." For further details check out http://www.abasa.info

"Philosophy centered on player development"
Launched in 1986 primarily as a youth soccer organization, in recent years High Country Soccer Association has seen its adult programming grow significantly. With 500 youth and more than 350 adults, it's one of the largest soccer clubs in the region.

"Our mission, says board of directors president Jason Joyce, "is to provide the High Country with a professionally-managed youth and adult soccer club delivered through licensed coaches, age-specific curricula and a philosophy centered on player development." Operating year-round, HCSA schedules its practices and competitions at the Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex in Boone.

The association's infrastructure is solid, led by a director of coaching and a technical director (both full-time positions) who run all of the soccer programs, says Joyce. High Country also has 14 contract staff coaches, and an executive director in charge of business affairs and fundraising.

Corporate sponsorship is a significant part of the mix for the not-for-profit High Country Soccer Association; local small businesses and local outlets of national concerns support the club's work. Daniel Boone Inn, Mellow Mushroom, Pedalin' Pig BBQ, Astroturf, Hardee's, Subway and Harris Teeter are just a few sponsors.

HCSA organizes three adult soccer leagues: the Premier league's seasons are spring and fall. There's a summer league, and a winter futsal (hard court, five-a-side soccer) league as well. The primary sponsor for the association's three adult leagues is Appalachian Mountain Brewery.

Jason Joyce has been involved with HCSA for more than a decade, as a parent of youth players. He joined the board more than four years ago, and says that High Country Soccer Association is a community: "From adults to youth to spectators, we provide a place for folks to enjoy the game of soccer. To find out more, visit https://www.hcsoccer.com/

"Fun for all ages and all genders"
Affiliated with both North Carolina Masters Swimming and the national organization U.S. Masters Swimming, Asheville Masters Swimming is a workout and organized swimming group for men and women. Founded in 1991 and currently with 30 to 50 registered swimmers, the group offers both organized workouts and opportunities for out-of-town visitors to participate on a drop-in basis.

Operating year round, Asheville Masters Swimming currently uses the City of Asheville's Rec Park pool in East Asheville and the T.C. Roberson High School swimming pool. "occasionally, we use Lake summit and Lake Lure as well, says swim coach Andrew Pulsifer.

"I have coached college, club, clinics and masters for over 30 years," says Pulsifer. "I love Asheville Masters Swimming as a fitness thing, a social thing, and as a supplement to my full-time real estate broker work."

A not-for-profit organization, Asheville Masters Swimming does not currently have corporate sponsorship. Coaches are on deck for all workout, and they're paid on a per-session basis. Even during the pandemic, Asheville Masters Swimming managed to continue, making use of reservations and open swim times.

"Swimming with a coach on deck provides organized workouts for former and current competitive swimmers, triathletes, open water racers and fitness folks," says Pulsifer. "It's a super-fun way for all ages and all genders to socialize and get a great workout in." The organization does schedule social events, and focused training is available for those who need it. Ashed to name his favorite thing about Asheville Masters Swimming, Andrew Pulsifer instead ticks off three: "The people, the fitness, and water time!" Explore more at http://ashevillemasters.com/

Parks and Recreation sports
Each of the 16 counties of Western North Carolina has its own Parks and/or Recreation Department. While the more rural counties may offer fewer opportunities for organized sports -- focusing instead on parks -- the more populated counties have an assortment of team and league sports for adults.

"Building new friendship and strengthening current ones"
Serving the largest concentration of population in the region, The City of Asheville Parks & Recreation Department offers an array of adult sports activities. Current opportunities for adults include basketball, flag football, indoor volleyball, outdoor sand volleyball, slow pitch softball and a variety of online eSports gaming leagues.

Program coordinators are Maria Young and Mikkel Patterson. Young says that that the primary goal of the department's sports programs is "to provide recreation opportunities for all residents of the community, while promoting skill development, confidence, fair play and sportsmanship." The Asheville Parks & Rec staff aims to "connect our communities by helping to build new friendships and strengthen current ones," says Patterson.

The department operates year-round, but each sport or activity has its own season. "Various sports have different minimum and maximum participants based on the number of players per team needed to play a game," explains Patterson. "Typically we have 200 to 450 participants per year in adult sports." There are structural limits to the number of persons who can be involved, but Young emphasizes that "we structure our programs to help everyone play."

The pandemic meant that all programs ofr 202 were canceled," says Young. "Our recreation centers were first used as childcare sites ofr essential workers, and then -- in partnership with Asheville City Schools -- as learning sites. Before COVID-19, participation numbers were trending upward. "And now," says Patterson, "we have the opportunity to build on that momentum as expand our programs. We're operating on a full schedule beginning this summer."

Asheville Parks & Rec uses its many facilities for the various activities. "Shiloh Recreation Center, Stephens Lee Recreation Center and Tempie Avery Montford Center are used for indoor sports," Patterson says. "For outdoor leagues, ball fields and parks throughout the City are used including fields at Shiloh, Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Montford Field, Carrier Park, Oakley Park, and Ray L. Kisiah Park."

With trained staff working part- and full-time, the City of Asheville Parks and Recreation Department offers discounts on most of its programs for city residents. "We have leagues and programs for all levels of play, from rec league to advanced," says Patterson. Find out more by going to https://www.ashevillenc.gov/service/athletics/

"Quality programming at low cost"
Including populations centers Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina's Wautauga County is home to a Parks & Recreation infrastructure offering adult sports in basketball (full team and 3-on-3), pickleball, softball (for men, women and coed play) and volleyball.

"In Athletics, Watauga County Parks & Recreation serves approximately 2500-3000 participants in league play," says athletic director Holly Gates. "Full-time Parks and Recreation staff run the leagues with the assistance of many part-time scorekeepers, officials, umpires and referees." New participants are welcomed. Staffing became more of a challenge druing 2020, when Appalachian State University students were learning online and thus unavailable for in-person work. Even with things opening up again, Gates says that she is "always looking for volunteer coaches to run the youth athletic teams" as well.

Gates has been involved with Watauga County Park & Recreation Athletics for more than 20 years, and notes that with the economic hardships brought about in 2020, local businesses found it harder to provide sponsorship as they had done in the past. But the county has managed to keep its variety of programs going. "We provide quality programming to participants, requiring little or no travel outside the county for games," she says.

The central goal of the county's programs is straightforward. "We offer the opportunity for youth and adults to participate in sports locally, regardless of their skills, abilities or financial resources," says Gates.

Collegiate intramural sports
Western North Carolina is home to many institutes of higher learning; many -- from regional community colleges to private and public universities -- offer intramural sports programs, providing young adults with opportunities for fitness, recreation and athletic competition.

"Explore, move, play and thrive"
"UNC Asheville's intramural sports offering vary depending on the time of the year," says Sarah Broberg, special assistant to the chancellor for communication and marketing. Activities are organized around the academic calendar. During the spring, intramural sports at UNC Asheville included dodgeball, 2x2 volleyball, sand volleyball, spikeball and soccer tennis 2x2. Concurrent with those, the university also provided a selection of eSports including Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Minecraft, Overwatch, and Rocket League.

A Recreation Recess program was launched for students during the pandemic. Every Friday, a variety of activities including cornhole, kan-jam, lawn darts, disc golf, croquet and bocce ball were scheduled. Broberg says that the program is enhanced through partnerships with other departments across the campus. She mentions the Campfires and Cornhole Series that took place last spring. "This collaboration between Intramural Sports, Outdoor Programs, and Residential Education at UNC Asheville took place every Wednesday night at different residence halls across campus," she says.

UNC Asheville's fields, facilities and sports complexes allow the university to host all of its intramural sports activities on its campus in North Asheville. And while in normal times, UNCA campus recreation facilities are open to alumni, spouses/dependent and affiliate members, for the time being those resources are limited for health and safety reasons to currently registered students, faculty and staff.

The university's intramural and recreation offerings are supported primarily through student activity fees, says Broberg. UNC Asheville's Campus Recreation team runs and manages the department full time; paid student workers also support the program during the academic year.

"UNC Asheville Campus Recreation activates our university community to explore, move, play, and thrive through diverse and inclusive learning experiences while cultivating balance and lifelong wellbeing," says Broberg. Find out more at https://recreation.unca.edu/programs/intramural-sports/

Other adult sports organizations
Beyond the organizations profiled above, local and regional YMCAs offer robust programs, with children and youth as a primary focus. Among the most popular -- and with multiple locations -- is the YMCA of Western North Carolina.

"Putting people first"
"At the Y, sports are about building skills and character," says MaryO Ratcliffe, the organization's vice president of marketing and communications. "We focus on fun and fundamentals. Kids learn about good sportsmanship and how to be a team player." Programming incorporates the YMCA's four core values: caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility. Parents and guardians are invited to be involved with programs for the youngest participants.

Before the pandemic, the Y served 1200 kids in youth sports programs each year. Currently some 300 youth are enrolled in the organization's summer sports camps. Those half-day camps offer flag football, soccer, basketball, field hockey, volleyball, and ultimate frisbee. "We plan to offer youth flag football and soccer clinics this fall, and will have youth basketball over the winter," says Ratcliffe.

"Pre-COVID, we ran several sports leagues, both in house and in partnership with schools and churches," Ratcliffe says. "We had to take almost a year away from programming due to the mandatory shutdown. As we rebuild, we're offering a variety of sports clinics focusing on the fundamentals. Demand for safe, affordable, quality youth sports programs is high, and we anticipate more growth this fall."

YMCA staff run all of the organization's sports clinics and camps, with support from volunteers. YMCA facilities his many of the activities, and Ratcliffe notes that YMCA of WNC "also works closely with local parks and recreation departments, schools, and other entities." The Y manages Patton Park and Pool for the City of Hendersonville, and the Buncombe County Schools Aquatics Center.

"Thanks to generous community support," says Ratcliffe, "we provide financial assistance to ensure that anyone and everyone has the opportunity to participate." Adults interested in getting involved are encouraged to look into the Y's volunteer coaching opportunities.

Ratcliffe has been a member of the YMCA of WNC for more than a decade. "My teenager learned to swim at the Y when he was small," she says. And she has been a staff member for four years. "As a nonprofit, the Y puts people first," she says. "It's an inclusive, welcoming organization dedicated to helping everyone in the community learn, grow, and thrive."

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in most ever corner of society; organized sports and recreation leagues were no exception. So while this features has spotlighted a number of organizations providing sorts opportunities in Western North Carolina, other leagues, teams and clubs are in the process of re-opening and once again finding their footing. Do a bit of digging -- or ask around -- and you're likely to find even more opportunities to get out on the field.

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