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Net effect; Young soccer players will get their kicks at Lancaster's new 16-field complex.

Byline: Karen Nugent

LANCASTER - Instead of gigabytes and word processors, there will be breakaways and worm burners.

After a dozen years of planning, a new soccer complex that will serve all of Massachusetts and beyond is set to open as soon as the snow melts on five of its 16 fields.

The official opening of the $9.5 million complex, to be called Citizens Bank Fields at Progin Park, won't be until late September. However, youth soccer games will start on the five 110-by-75-foot synthetic turf fields next month, according to John D. Burrill, executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, which has headquarters in a former Digital Equipment Corp. building on Old Union Turnpike, off Routes 2 and 70. The building was a farmhouse on rolling fields before Digital bought it in the 1970s.

"In theory, you could play all year, if it's warm enough," Mr. Burrill said.

The 11 grass fields need another year or so of growing time, he said.

All of the fields will eventually be available for statewide, regional, and city and town league games, along with serving as a host facility for major state and regional tournaments.

With about 200,000 children in the state trying to "bend it like Beckham," soccer has become the most popular youth sport in Massachusetts. Mr. Burrill said about 180,000 children are in the association, along with several thousand coaches.

Without the 136-acre complex, it would continue to hold tournaments at rented facilities at Devens, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and various other locales.

The Lancaster complex, he said, is easily reached from all parts of the state, and will likely draw a larger percentage of players because of that.

Ben Myers, president of the Nashoba Valley Youth Soccer League and a youth soccer coach in Harvard, is quite pleased with the prospect of parents not having to travel to Amherst for tournaments.

Besides saving money on field rentals - not to mention hotels, restaurants and gas - the new fields, especially the natural-grass ones, will be superior to the UMass fields, he said, which he described as somewhat below par because they are college practice fields.

In fact, he pointed out that the Progin Park fields will even be better than the football-scarred Gillette Stadium turf, which is home to the New England Revolution, a pro soccer team.

"This is going to be the best soccer complex in all of New England, and better than big ones in Minnesota and Pennsylvania," Mr. Myers said. "The grass fields will be maintained in top-notch condition with the intent to keep them in pristine condition for soccer."

He noted that artificial turf allows for play in all weather, pretty much year-round.

As it stands now, he said, town teams have to scramble for fields owned by school or parks departments in their communities. Some fields are better than others, he said - volunteers sometimes having to go to games early and pick up trash and police the fields for shards of glass.

"Some have big patches of dirt. It depends on how much money is in a town's budget," he said.

Mr. Myers said special league days at the Progin fields have been reserved, with the Nashoba league - made up of about 25 teams from Ayer and Dracut to Westboro - scheduled to play 20 matches on five fields on Sept. 8, its opening day.

"That will be good for the kids - a big start-off day with some pumped-up play," he said.

The Midland Area Youth Soccer League, which encompasses Worcester suburbs from Upton to the Quabbin towns, will be among the first to try out the fields.

Andrew T. Page, president of the Midland league and an MYSA director, said older teens from the league will play 24 games on the five fields April 1.

"And it's not an April Fools' Day joke," he said with a laugh.

Mr. Page said a key advantage of the new complex is the artificial-turf fields, because games on them do not depend on the whims of New England weather.

"Fields in April are usually soggy and unplayable. Now we have the ability to get going, without worrying about games begin canceled," he said.

Mr. Burrill said giving the naming rights of the complex to Citizens Bank, in a five-year deal, evolved from a soccer-ball giveaway program the bank started with the association a few years ago.

Initially, the complex was to be called simply "Sixteen Fields at Progin Park" after the late George K. Progin of Lancaster, founder of Leominster-based Union Products plastics, which created the pink plastic flamingo lawn ornament. Mr. Progin, who had no heirs, left the bulk of his estate to benefit children's programs in town, and his trustees decided to give a chunk to the soccer association for the fields.

Michael D. Jones, vice president and director of New England media for Providence-based Citizens Bank, said the bank has a long-standing relationship with Massachusetts youth soccer, and wanted to extend it.

"It's a natural, logical extension (of the soccer-ball giveaway), and we consider it an investment in the community," he said. "This complex is the first of its kind in New England."

Mr. Jones, who declined to say how much Citizens paid for the naming rights, said businesses such as hotels, restaurants and gas stations in Lancaster and the surrounding communities stand to make about $5 million a year in ancillary revenue from soccer tournaments.

"Folks are used to traveling to these tournaments, and they contribute to the local economy," he said.

Mr. Jones said one large tournament would generate about $1.6 million, and there will be at least three held at the complex per year.

"It's a major infusion of money - with a marketing component for Citizens Bank," he said. "We focus on initiatives that make investments in the community."

Jeffrey J. Martin, a professor of sports psychology, exercise and health at Wayne State University in Detroit, gave a presentation on the psychology of youth soccer to parents and coaches at a national youth soccer association meeting a few years ago, and has been invited back.

From his office at the university Thursday morning, he said the parents were interested in how much of a grasp the youngest players, ages 5 and 6, have on the concept of competition.

The conventional wisdom is that they don't get it until around 11.

"They can still learn skills and be physically active, but they don't understand winning and losing strategies. For example, they don't understand positioning - they all cluster around the ball. A coach can stand there screaming and yelling about plays, position, and they just don't understand. He'll be pulling his hair out," said Mr. Martin, who has a doctorate in sport psychology.

A combination of effort and ability is required for a child to be successful at a sport, he said, and until 10 or 11, both contribute to a player's performance.

"Until age 11, they don't understand that you might lose even if you're trying hard. They don't understand things like the quality of the opponents, and luck - bad luck," Mr. Martin said.

Contact Karen Nugent by e-mail at knugent@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS; MAP

CUTLINE: (1) John D. Burrill, executive director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, says Citizens Bank Fields at Progin Park in Lancaster will be drawing soccer teams and fans from all parts of the state. (2) Youth soccer players will begin playing on the five synthetic turf fields in Lancaster next month. Another 11 grass fields are planned at the 136-acre soccer complex. (MAP) Citizens Bank Fields at Progin Park

PHOTOG: (1) T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR (2) Photo courtesy of MYSA (MAP) T&G Staff/MARIA GROCCIA
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 25, 2007
Words:1287
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