By Clay Horning
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Yes, soccer has been a big deal in Norman for a long time. Yes, Tigers and Timberwolves have regularly played for state titles and may well do it again here in a couple of weeks. And still, today’s a good one to take it all in.
On the first night of the playoffs, the NHS girls are at home against Mustang, the North girls are welcoming Southmoore, ditto for the NHS and North boys, who are playing host to Bishop McGuinness and Yukon.
If each bunch of Tigers and T-Wolves wins, and the regular season says they should, they’ll meet each other in Friday’s Class 6A quarterfinal round on North’s pitch.
If the North girls, ranked fourth, take state, it will be their first crown. If the ninth-ranked NHS girls do it, it will be their eighth state championship. If the fifth-ranked North boys do it, it will be their fifth. If the fourth-ranked NHS boys do it, it will be their fifth.
Soccer only became a varsity sport in 1985. North only opened its doors in the fall of 1997.
“I try not to think about it because it’s mind boggling how the program has grown and how successful soccer has been in Norman,” NHS boys coach Gordon Drummond said. “And not just in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality, as Norman High and Norman North have both been able to win state championships.”
The program Drummond speaks is not NHS, nor North, but the Norman Youth Soccer Association he and Bob Shalhope, a fellow University of Oklahoma history professor, formed in 1976.
If you love soccer, thank them. If you despise it, blame them. They got the ball rolling right into the net.
“We wanted something for our sons to play and we thought we’d have enough people in Norman go along with us,” Drummond said. “We thought we’d have enough for three or four teams and that was about it.”
Immediately, 200 boys and girls signed up. Four years later the number was 1,600.
So much for three or four teams. And a line from that beginning, almost 37 years ago, to 6 p.m. tonight, when the girls’ games kick off, is a straight one.
NHS girls coach Tyler Hardage, North girls coach Don Rother and North boys coach Geo Claros all grew up in the NYSA and all continue to coach within the program. Rother and Claros played for Drummond at NHS.
The hold the sport has on Norman is not merely significant, but unique.
“The way soccer sets up in Norman,” Hardage said, “you get to play with your friends and you get to keep those teams together for a while.”
For many, the high school programs actually separate long-time NYSA Celtic and Fury teammates for the first time. Still, that’s a testament to the hold the NYSA has on players from in town. Norman kids may play their club soccer elsewhere, but it’s not common.
“We have a good organization that supports soccer and that gives a lot of kids the opportunity to play soccer growing up, and there’s a lot of loyalty,” Rother said. “The difference between us and other (places) is most of our club players stay together and play in Norman and then go to high school together.”
It creates a connection that’s hard to break.
“If there’s a big game, people come back to watch,” Claros said. “You see lots of kids that you coached 4 or 5 years ago. I don’t think you see that in other places … There’s a sense of community with our soccer.”
While popular from the start, soccer has managed to become cool.
“In the early 90s we started to get a lot of our better athletes choosing to play soccer,” Claros said.
That’s been on display for a long time. Tonight, it will be again.
“We have a lot of talented players in Norman,” Hardage said, “and it’s fun to watch.”
Drummond and Shalhope couldn’t have imagined what they began in the middle of the nation’s Bicentennial would lead to tonight. They couldn’t have known everything would come together. On the other hand, a good idea, well executed and for the right reasons, often goes places.
“We never expected anything like this would happen and that we would have our own soccer facilities and that there would be so many committed to soccer,” Drummond said. “It is humbling in many, many ways.”
Fun and exciting, too.
The playoffs begin tonight.
Follow me @clayhorning
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