Passion builds as soccer academy brings free program to Fellsmere

Fellsmere Elementary School students compete for the soccer ball during practice. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

On any given Friday, the enthusiasm builds as the young team members race across the manicured fields to play their favorite sport at Fellsmere Elementary School. Loud cheers echo throughout the campus as players effortlessly kick the soccer balls until they rocket into the goal nets. 

Indian River Soccer Academy Director of Coaching Ian Brice. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

Head coach Ian Brice’s mission is simple; He wants the young athletes to have fun at the free program, made possible through donations from Indian River Shores residents.   

“No lines, no laps, no lectures. No one wants to stand in the hot sun listening to the coach. No one wants to stand in line waiting for their turn. No one wants to run a lap as a punishment,” said Brice, a Vero Lago resident and director of coaching for the Indian River Soccer Academy, which hosts the recreational soccer practice at the school. 

“We want to encourage touches on the ball, fun and enjoyment. Then, they learn to love soccer and will never step away from it.”

The program has financial support from married couple Kiernan and Kristina Moylan, both of Indian River Shores. Kiernan Moylan, who owns a ranch in Fellsmere with his wife, said they decided to help a community they wanted to see grow. 

“We talked with the city of Fellsmere about bringing recreational soccer,” said Moylan, who played the sport at the Division 1 level at Davidson College in North Carolina. “We’re not only a financial supporter, but we believe in the program. You can see the impact and excitement out there.” 

Some of the young, aspiring athletes wear jerseys to practice bearing the name of Lionel Messi, the Argentina-born Major League Soccer player who led his country to win the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Fellsmere Elementary School students show off their skills during soccer practice. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

“(Messi) is one of a kind. He’s definitely a soccer player I look up to,” said Ricardo Gamez, who helps coach students during the afterschool soccer program. “He’s one of the best soccer players in the world.”

For Gamez, 21, of Fellsmere, Messi serves as a guiding light for those wanting to play professional or recreational soccer. The love for the sport is kicking off in the town of 4,955 residents with a mostly Hispanic and Latino population.

“I think soccer is taking off here because of the culture,” said Gamez, who began practicing soccer at age 9 with the Indian River Soccer Academy. “My dad made me play soccer.”

More than 60 kids train with professionally-licensed athletes for six weeks at no cost. It is all  thanks to a partnership between the soccer club and Fellsmere Elementary School, along with sponsorships and donations, organizers say. Third-graders through fifth-graders must participate in academic mentoring twice a week for them to be able to play soccer, Brice said. 

“The good part is showing kids how to play without asking their parents for money,” said Gamez, a Fellsmere Elementary School graduate who is now a Subway restaurant franchise owner in Vero Beach. “We’re bringing soccer to them for free. The parents love it. Kids get to get out of the house. The coaches do an excellent job.”

Student Adan Luna said playing soccer – a sport popular in Europe, Africa and South America – is an activity he enjoys.

“It’s fun for me,” Luna said. “I love it. I play every day.”

Brice said he saw a need in Fellsmere. The Luton Town-born soccer pro, who played in the United Kingdom, said IRSA leaders pondered how they could use resources to leave a positive imprint in the underserved community.   

“We wanted to bring soccer to Fellsmere. There’s so many soccer families here, but there’s no real organized soccer for youth in this town,” Brice said. “Our main aim is to expose kids to soccer. We want to make sure the kids have fun. Everyone’s moving, everyone’s active, everyone’s playing.”

Brice has been working with the soccer academy, a nonprofit organization, for 15 years. The competitive programs under the IRSA are separate from its free recreational youth program at Fellsmere Elementary School, which many consider a central community hub. 

Coach Asa Warner, IRSA’s player development director, guides students during soccer practice at Fellsmere Elementary School. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

“It’s been good to make sure we can market and get information to families in Fellsmere by using the school. We can play here, work with kids here, we come here and do parent nights where we give out information about the soccer program,” Brice said. “Now as we walk through the halls, kids are starting to recognize us and know us by name. It’s quite humbling really, but it’s been really exciting.”

Principal Ramon Echeverria, originally from Panama in Central America, said the students sometimes come to school with their own soccer balls. Echeverria said most of the families are from Central and South America. 

“It’s inherited in our blood to play,” Echeverria said. “We know kids are driven by the sport. It’s in the culture.” 

This is the first year the soccer program was held at the campus, located off North Cypress Street in the ordinarily quiet community. Brice said the academic mentoring has led students to earn higher grades. 

“Academically we’re seeing an increase for the kids,” Brice said. “Soccer, teamwork, and all the things that come along with sports, life lessons – we’re hitting them with a double-edged sword.”

Tom Tierney, board president for the soccer academy, said the program has gained an overwhelming amount of interest in Fellsmere and that organizers hope to expand it over the summer and fall. Police Chief Keith Touchberry said programs like the soccer academy engage the youth and provide positive lifelong impacts by helping young people stay active, grow and develop.

School Resource Deputy Ian McKay, who led efforts to collect donations to build a second soccer field across from the school, also coaches the students in soccer. McKay has been working at the campus for five years. 

“I love coming here everyday,” McKay said. “Fellsmere Elementary and the community are a close knit group of people. The parents show up and the kids show up. Everyone is making a positive impact as a whole.” 

Photos by Joshua Kodis

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