WATSONVILLE–A typical day of soccer camp for Miranda Mathiesen is passing the ball back and forth to her teammates, followed by some light footwork to help with juking defenders.
It doesn’t sound like much, but for her and the rest of the Pajaro Valley United Youth Soccer Club, it is the welcomed return of some shred of normalcy.
“Sitting at home for so long, it feels kind of nice to just be able to come out here and get sort of a schedule back,” she said. “It’s nice to see everybody, too.”
Mathiesen, a junior at Aptos High School, has had the opportunity to attend a camp hosted by PV United since mid-August thanks to Gina Castañeda, a Santa Cruz County probation officer and longtime soccer coach.
Castañeda said she felt it was time for the kids to get outdoors, especially after they were sheltered-in-place due to the state’s Covid-19 guidance set in March.
“It’s just been great to see them back on the field,” she said.
Castañeda introduced a countywide Covid-19 policy for soccer teams in a time when nobody was jumping at the opportunity to write it. She did some research, drew up a four-phase system of her own, received approval from county health officials and implemented it with PV United.
Castañeda said there are several young people in the area who do not have access to a yard, a park or transportation to a beach.
“I needed to do something to help the kids in our community, socially, emotionally and help them destress with everything that’s going on,” Castañeda said.
PV United started with pre-phase virtual training sessions, which slowly moved into Phase 1: individual drills without passing.
The first phase had cohorts of 12 kids and two coaches and there could only be one cohort on the soccer field at one time. Also, parents and spectators were not permitted to stay.
PV United is currently in Phase 2, which introduces passing drills and larger cohorts of 14 kids and two coaches. Both cohorts can be on the pitch and the field must be split in half so that there’s no interaction.
The third phase can have players participate in both 7-on-7 and 9-on-9 scrimmages and practices.
Phase 4 allows them to return to normal play.
Mathiesen said she was a little skeptical about returning to practice and questioned how things would turn out. She said that the phased plan has been beneficial because it gives players a chance to get back to the basics and hone their skills during the first two phases.
“After getting into the groove of things I realized I kind of like it better this way,” she said. “I miss going full-on out against people but it’s nice to separate each other and focus on ourselves.”
In the early months of the pandemic Castañeda, who founded the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy in Watsonville, said she began reaching out to several soccer clubs and people she knows through the Olympic Development Program.
She said she found that some clubs in the Bay Area were conditioning both legally and illegally.
“When I reached out to some of those clubs they were like, ‘We’re not going to share (our guidelines) with you because we’re competitive,’” she said.
Castañeda said she began getting phone calls from parents telling her they were worried about depression and suicide. She said that players of the Aztecas Academy were also feeling the same.
“That was shocking to me, I just couldn’t believe it,” she said about other clubs not sharing ideas and policies with her. “Let’s think about the mental health and emotional stability of the kids, yet nobody wanted to hear that.”
Castañeda studied the state’s mandates and said she figured out that they could do soccer camps, which she called “Return to Practice Soccer Camps.”
She got a permit from Santa Cruz County officials after she presented them the set of policies and procedures. The County granted PV United access to Pinto Lake County Park but the soccer goal nets needed to be taken down.
A permit is required by any groups that want to hold any type of sports camp. However, Castañeda said she’s concerned because members of the community are still playing competitively without following the state’s guidance to outdoor recreation.
Castañeda said they are a competitive club, but she doesn’t want parents to think their kids are forced to attend camp in order for them to have a spot on the team.
“If they didn’t feel safe with the guidelines we were going to follow, it was OK,” she said.
PV United requires parents to sign a waiver form similar to what other sports clubs or organizations are using. They also had a Zoom meeting to walk them through the process and explain that there’s no contact between players or coaches—high-fives and hugs, as well-meaning as they might be, are not allowed.
Mathiesen said she believes everything is working out well despite having early skepticism. She said the players know to wear masks when not active in drills, stay six feet apart, use hand sanitizer and do temperature checks prior to hitting the field.
“It’s way better than I thought it would be, honestly,” she said.
Castañeda has shared the guidance and waiver form to city officials in Watsonville and the Santa Cruz Youth Soccer Club, which adopted the same policy as PV United. They also shared the information with NorCal Premier, the leading organization for competitive play in the region.
“In reality there was a need for kids to have some stability in their life,” she said.