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The beautiful game’ on Shelter Island: Students push to make soccer a school sport

At mid-afternoon on a cold, overcast day this week, two kids were shooting hoops at the Bateman Street courts. In the distance, two soccer goals were on the empty Fiske Field outfield. A lone figure walked across the grass, with a soccer ball at his feet as if it were on a string, moving from foot to foot.

Approaching one of the goals, he again gently tapped the ball foot-to-foot and suddenly ripped a shot into the back of the goal.

Soon Harrison Weslek was joined by boys in groups of twos and threes, knocking soccer balls around as they came, with the sound of Spanish mixed with English in the boys’ chatter.

“We’ve been coming out twice a week for about a month now,” Harrison, a sophomore at Shelter Island School said. The leading scorer on the varsity basketball team, who also plays baseball, he had played soccer earlier in his life, but replaced it with other sports.

He rekindled his love for the game during the recent World Cup tournament. “And a friend,” he pointed to Jaxson Rylott kicking a ball toward goaltender Cayman Morehead, “got me out on the field. You should talk to him. He’s a really good player.”

Jaxson got his love for the sport from his father, Paul Rylott, who is originally from England, watching televised matches from Britain, and kicking a ball around with his father at an early age, who taught him the fundamentals of what is known as “the beautiful game.”

His father is a Manchester United fan, and so is his son. Jaxson proudly pointed to a Manchester United patch on his jersey. “I’ve got to represent,” he said with a smile.

Harrison said part of the benefit of any sport is bonding with teammates, and with soccer fielding teams of 11, there’s an opportunity to get to know many other students.

“You have to know where everyone is on the field at all times, and you get to know them really well,” he said. “This sport is played by everyone, everywhere in the world,” he added, and getting to know Latino classmates better by playing with them is a bonus. “It’s brought a lot of us together, especially post-COVID,” he said.

If all goes according to plan, soccer on the Island won’t be just pick-up games, but an organized school sport competing against other area schools.

At the Jan. 17 Board of Education meeting, Harrison presented a proposal to consider implementing an organized soccer program. He told the Board that he knew of 22 students from grades 8 though 12 who were interested. Many had showed up to support his presentation.

Athletic Director Todd Gulluscio and Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D., expressed support for the program, noting that soccer also appeals to students who don’t have an interest in competing in sports already supported by the school.

It’s a fairly easy process to put a team into competition, Mr. Gulluscio told the Reporter. “Once the school district decides they want to have a new team for any sport, I notify Section XI [the high school league in Suffolk County] prior to the deadline for submission, which for the 2023 Fall season is next month,” he said. “From there, the team is placed in a league and is given a schedule.”

It’s expected that soccer would initially be introduced as an intramural sport involving girls and boys. 

Also helping the students get organized to play pick-up-games on a regular basis is high school math teacher James “Jimbo” Theinert. Mr. Theinert was at the Fiske Field gathering.

“Just as an observer,” he said with a smile. In his math class he had heard Harrison, Jaxson and their classmate Marlon Cuerta Huertas Maldonado talking about soccer and the World Cup. He arranged for a live screening of the cup final in the school auditorium.

About 25 kids showed up for one of the most exciting finals in history. “It was great,” Harrison said, “to be there with everyone.”

In the goal mouth, Cayman turned away another shot. “Cayman’s the best!” someone yelled. The boys’ steps grew quicker as they warmed up, and passes between players were crisper.

A once silent, empty field was now alive with voices rising and falling in the cold afternoon.