PENDLETON — A group of elementary-aged children chased a soccer ball on the court of the Round-Up Athletic Club, orange cones marking the edges of the “field.” The teams were split evenly by gender, but not by numbers, with nine girls facing off against four boys.
Quick math would hand the advantage to the young ladies, but an addition to the boys’ side made for more equitable teams. Standing twice as tall as any of his teammates was Brent Richards, a forward for the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer.
Monkman was one of the 97 young area soccer fans who attended Dribble Oregon’s free youth soccer clinic Sunday in Pendleton. The clinic was split into two sessions, initially capped at 40 participants apiece, where youngsters between 5-13 could learn a few basics and test their skills with Richards and fellow Timber, defender Ryan Kawulok.
Dribble Oregon, in its second annual tour of the state and southwest Washington presented by Timbers founding partner JELD-WEN Windows & Doors, made its first appearance in Pendleton this year. Sunday’s stop was the second of a six-city run.
“When we got involved with the Timbers, the idea of bringing the team to the community and making it more of an Oregon team, getting them out there, it was important for us to be involved in something like this,” said Bill Hueffner, director of development and professional relations for JELD-WEN.
Building a bond with the communities of Oregon is at the heart of Dribble Oregon, Hueffner reiterated. So along with free sessions for young players, like those hosted by the RAC on Sunday, the Timbers representatives also try to do a little more on each stop. Sunday morning, Dribble Oregon sponsored a tree planting at Olney Cemetery with Friends of Trees.
Then on Sunday night Richards, Kawulok and Timbers mascot Timber Joey spent time at Wildfire Sports Bar at Wildhorse Resort & Casino trying to create a different kind of bond. Hueffner said the Timbers want to establish satellite viewing locations for the team’s games and give fans a place to watch the action with other fans.
The Dribble Oregon tour will feature eight total professional players from the Portland franchise, with Richards and Kawulok having appeared for both the first two dates — Pendleton on Sunday and in Vancouver, Wash., the day before.
Richards said he leapt at the opportunity to volunteer for such activities, a chance to try and inspire the next generation of players. The sessions with children are much less about trying to ingrain in them the fundamentals of the textbook game and more about creating excitement.
Only one of those things can be done in an hour’s time.
“As long as they’re excited about it and having a good time, we feel like we’ve done a good job,” said Richards, who grew up in Camas. “We tried to make sure we taught them some things today, but we’re just happy they’re having a good time. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy, and that makes it a success.”
Kawulok agreed. The fans support the players, he said, and it should go both ways.
But working with kids can be a lot different than interacting with the usual fans. Much like the awe that registers on their faces when professional athletes come around, children’s thoughts quickly rise to the surface. That makes for some memorable encounters, Kawulok said.
Along with the usual questions like “How much money do you make?”, the conversations that Kawulok and Richards run into during clinics usually leave at least one half of the exchange laughing.
“It can be hilarious working with kids,” Kawulok said. “This event was put on on a Sunday and one of the girls asked, ‘Why do you guys do this on Sundays? All I do on Sundays is relax and I had to come out here and play soccer.’ So we told her next year we’ll make sure it’s not on a Sunday.
“I guess Pendleton takes it easy on Sundays,” he added with another laugh.
Like the franchise they play for, Richards and Kawulok will be entering their second MLS seasons this spring. Both previously played for the Timbers U-23 squad and the Timbers Reserves prior to the team’s inclusion in the MLS ranks last season.
Dribble Oregon continues its tour this week, hitting Medford on Saturday and the Eugene area on Sunday.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839.