A well-established men’s soccer group in New Canaan that’s seeking consistent access to the town’s playing fields is prompting parks officials to create a formal process for it and similar leagues.
Led by officers including New Canaanites Jeff Walker and Grant Harshbarger, the men’s soccer group is more than 20 years old, counts 65 registered players, has its own insurance and is seeking to lock down two 2-hour sessions in the evening for what typically turn out to be 8-on-8 or 10-on-10 games, officials say.
Town and district officials such as Recreation Director Steve Benko and New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan have been “generous about helping us get fields, but about three or four years ago it started getting tough,” Walker told members of the Parks & Recreation Commission at their most recent meeting.
Joined by Harshbarger at the meeting, Walker said 40 of 65 players are New Canaan residents while the others are typically their family members or friends.
“We used to be almost 90 percent New Canaan, but we have lost a lot of players to other towns’ programs that consistently set up times for fields,” Walker said at the meeting, held May 10 at Lapham Community Center.
One of the difficulties this spring is that the town was unable to open its grass fields until about one month ago, according to Benko—relatively late in the season.
Commission Chair Sally Campbell noted that turf fields, which are available earlier in the year than grass fields, will always go first to high school sports teams, followed by youth sports teams and then other groups.
Benko said that it’s been challenging this spring to meet the needs of all high school and youth sports programs—for example, the high school baseball, softball and lacrosse teams all have been seeking time on the turf fields at the same time that New Canaan’s large youth lacrosse league was unable to get on grass fields and youth soccer was relegated to a four-hour slot on Sundays. Use of playing fields is restricted, too, because the town’s zoning permit for their operation requires that lights are extinguished at 10 p.m., Benko said.
Campbell said that if the men’s soccer group keeps recreation and district officials informed, they “should be able to get time.”
According to Walker, the group used to have some access to indoor gymnasiums at the school “but that disappeared,” and also used to have access to Dunning Field, which also went away.
“And I don’t think it was being used,” Walker said. “I think part of the problem was that we have not been a formalized group.”
Yet the group has been respectful of the town’s rules about when fields are closed and isn’t picky about where it plays, Walker said.
“We are a loyal and organized group—what you get is there are sporadic groups that play on their own,” Harshbarger said.
According to Walker, anyone who is in the men’s soccer group—its members range in age from about 19 to 60 and include former All-Americans and even national team players—who is caught using the playing fields outside of the group is kicked out of it.
With plans underway for capital projects at New Canaan’s playing fields, this coming summer will be especially difficult to accommodate demand, Campbell said.
A new process will be established where leagues such as the men’s soccer group apply for permits for fields use, Campbell said.
“We appreciate you coming to us—it is something we should have done,” she said. “Everybody keeps thinking we will get to it, but we haven’t.”