How soccer became king in Dare County

By on November 26, 2022

Training and opportunities have lifted Dare County soccer to its highest levels. (Photo credit: Betty Morales Bravo/Nighthawk News Magazine)

The evolution of the sport, from sandspurs to state tourneys

State titles. Regional championships. Collegiate players. Soccer in Dare County, a narrow sliver of land with a small population, is a resounding success story — and has been for some time. But how did we get here?

Area soccer coaches and college players credit a combination of factors. These include the availability of quality training opportunities and coaching; parent and community involvement; an active beach lifestyle that keeps players physically fit; and players’ personal dedication to improvement.

On Nov. 16, both First Flight High School (FFHS) and Manteo High School (MHS) men’s soccer teams lost their respective 3A and 2A Regional playoff games by one goal each, just a win away from competing in the State Championship game.

In separate interviews, both head coaches noted a recent uptick in community support — which was already significant — as they played these important games at home.

“[With] our recent runs lately, a lot of people in the community are getting excited for our program and watched the playoff game, where they’d never really watched a soccer game before,” said MHS Head Coach Ralph Cleaver. “It’s cool to see the love of the game spreading to people that maybe didn’t pay much attention to it beforehand.”

FFHS’ Head Coach Juan Ramirez said he’s heard conversations about the soccer games when he goes to the grocery store, and he’s had people in the neighborhood by the school ask him when the next game is, then show up. The players enjoyed this added support. “They love it when they see the stands so full,” Ramirez said. “It makes them nervous, but they love it.”

Over the past 10 years, the FFHS men’s team made it to the regional championships eight times, winning five. The women’s team made it to the regional championships twice, winning once, which was when they went on to win statewide.

The FFHS women’s soccer team won the state title in 2008 and in 2018, Ramirez said. In 2016, the FFHS men’s team won a state title.

The MHS men’s soccer team has made it to the regional championships the past two years and made it to the 1A state finals in 2005. While Manteo teams have not yet captured a state title, both Manteo and First Flight soccer programs have been consistently strong.

“Both of them have been perennial powerhouses every year,” said Jason Breiholz, FFHS’ assistant soccer coach. “By far, [at] both schools, soccer is the premier sport if you want to write it on paper in terms of success.”

 

Playing in a field of sandspurs

Jason Breiholz, 48, who has witnessed soccer’s dramatic growth here in the past decades, said the housing boom of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s brought soccer to the Outer Banks. “They came from areas that were loaded with soccer,” he said. “They came from Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia—and they wanted soccer.”

When the Dare County Parks and Recreation Department put together its first soccer teams in the mid-1980s, Breiholz was in 5th or 6th grade and signed up.  “It was pretty raw,” he recalled. “We played at Kitty Hawk Elementary in like, a field of sandspurs.”

In 1988, as a freshman at Manteo High, Breiholz made it on the first-ever high school soccer team in Dare County. Out of 350-400 students in the school, 60 tried out for the team, he said. “That year, it was such a big deal. It was just new and fresh.”

The team had to travel either hours inland or up to Virginia to play games. “It was a ragtag group,” he said. “By the time I was a senior, we had more knowledge than the soccer coaches. Nobody had a lot of soccer knowledge around here, believe it or not.”

He and the other players attended summer soccer camps at colleges like N.C. State University and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and brought that knowledge back home.

“That very first team at Manteo was the grandfather of all this soccer growth,” he noted.

Cleaver, 36, grew up on the Outer Banks playing for Parks and Rec soccer teams, the middle school team and then the MHS team.

His MHS team was good, but “we were…like raw athletes,” Cleaver said. “We were not the most technical team, whereas nowadays the kids — because they get quality training from a younger age — they’re much more technical players; they’re more skilled.”

Both Cleaver and Breiholz credit OBX Storm and other local soccer training opportunities with upping the ante on area soccer training. Cleaver said OBX Storm organized its first teams his freshman year in high school, and he watched younger kids grow up “to become top-tier players” from their participation in that program.

“Through my experience, we can take almost any young boy or girl and turn them into a good soccer player that can play on a high school team,” noted Jeff Scott, president of OBX Storm’s board of directors.

Both of Scott’s sons, now in their 20s, played soccer with the club and played on the FFHS team.

He’s held various positions with OBX Storm for over a decade and was coaching club teams starting four years prior to that. He’s stayed with it for a simple reason.

“I want parents and kids to have the same experience I had with the club,” Scott said. “What I ended up with from being involved is my boys were good students [who] knew how to handle adversity, and I ended up with some lifelong friends in parents.”

 

The talent “is absolutely incredible”

Most OBX Storm coaches are licensed by U.S. Soccer, and most have high school and/or college-level playing experience.

“You’ve got OBX Storm teams that are winning championships all over the place, and that age distribution goes from 9 years old all the way up to 17,” said Steve Smalley, OBX Storm’s coaching director.

About three-quarters of current MHS team members and about half of the FFHS team members play either for OBX Storm or in a Virginia-based soccer club, according to the head coaches’ estimates.

Smalley also coaches First Flight Middle School’s coed team, which has a strong soccer history of its own. He estimated the school has won about 30 of the last 35 championships.

Kids see the success of OBX Storm, the middle school and high school soccer programs, and want to be part of that tradition, he added.

“I think we’ve got a set of precedents over the last twenty years of being a recognized soccer entity, and kids want to be a part of that,” Smalley said. “Right now, it’s the most obvious sport reaping the most success on all levels, and that draws a large contingent of kids regardless of their age.”

Parks and Rec has a fall season, Outer Banks Youth Soccer Association has a spring season, Smalley’s Coastal Soccer School offers camps all summer, and OBX Storm runs more or less year-round. “Depending on how excited they are, they pursue it full-time, part-time, most of the time, whatever,” Smalley said.

Smalley, 57, played for the University of Virginia’s soccer team, and has been coaching soccer for about 37 years — 20 of those on the Outer Banks. His son, Graham Smalley, went on to play for a Division 1 college team, at Appalachian State University.

Another former FFHS student, Phoenix Wooten, is currently enrolled at Columbus Crew Academy, a professional soccer academy.

“The talent that’s coming out of this area is absolutely incredible,” Smalley said. Since 2007, FFHS has had 15 graduates — eight women and seven men — go on to play soccer for colleges, according to Ramirez.

Since Cleaver started coaching in 2015, he’s had three men from the MHS soccer team sign with colleges, and he expects several current players on the women’s team to play for colleges.

“The girls’ team this year, I expect to be easily the best girls’ team that Manteo High School’s probably ever seen,” Cleaver said. “It’s going to be fun.”

Ian O’Neal, head coach for the Cape Hatteras Secondary School’s (CHSS) men’s team, said one former player had gone on to play at the collegiate level, and several others could have, but opted not to.

This year was the first year since 2014 that the CHSS men’s team won a state playoff game. But O’Neal and Carlos Arrellano, head coach for both the women’s team and the middle school team, have witnessed a growing interest in soccer on Hatteras Island.

O’Neal, 24, played soccer for CHSS, graduating in 2016. “I was standing on the sidelines for Senior Night this year coaching, and it was the most people that I’d seen in those stands at the soccer field in my entire soccer career, all the way back to when I was playing. It was really cool.”

“We’re all young, ready to go, and the program’s kind of exploded,” he added. “Down on the island, soccer’s really getting its foot in the ground.”

According to information provided by Arrellano, getting enough players for the women’s soccer team has been a problem in the past. But last year, the women’s team had 18 players, and for spring 2023, 28 women are signed up to play.

CCSS’s biggest challenge is that its athletes tend to focus on more than one sport. A dozen of the 18 players on the men’s team also play basketball for the school. O’Neal, who is basketball coach as well, said team members asked him to move some basketball practices so they could go watch the Manteo and First Flight playoff games. “So everybody’s buzzing about it, and it’s super exciting,” he said.

“We really are looking to First Flight and Manteo, and trying to take pages from their book, and learn how to grow and how to get the program on the come-up,” O’Neal said.

Gage Bernard, a 2020 FFHS graduate, is currently playing soccer for Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Like most Outer Banks kids, he started playing soccer with Parks and Rec. “That little soccer field was where it all started,” he recalled.

Trent Powell, a 2019 FFHS graduate, played soccer for two years for Methodist University in Fayetteville. He did a study abroad program last year in Spain, where he trained regularly with a semi-professional team. He got back too late in the season to play for the college team this year, but the 21-year-old said he’s hoping to play at a higher level next year — possibly for the USL (United Soccer League) League One or for an overseas team.

Both he and Bernard were consistent freshman starters for their college teams. “It was awesome being able to come in and represent our community like that,” Powell said.

 

The factors behind the success

Scott noted the importance of the active Outer Banks lifestyle that helps local kids hone soccer skills.

“Most of them spend the whole summer in the ocean,” he said of local players. “If you’re skimboarding, then you’re increasing your quickness, which is very important in soccer. And if you’re surfing or boogieboarding, you’re learning more about timing and balance; and both of those things are important for soccer as well.”

Cleaver and O’Neal also pointed to growing Latino populations in Manteo and Hatteras as a boon for their respective soccer programs.

“Generally, they have a strong technical base, where they’ve just grown up at an early age playing — so that’s been beneficial on our side as well,” Cleaver said. He estimated about 65% of the men’s team and not quite 50% of the women’s team are Latino.

Almost a third of the CHSS men’s team is Latino. O’Neal said the Latino community on Hatteras Island has “really cool bonds” with the soccer program, attending games and providing pointers even if they don’t have kids on the team.

Both FFHS and MHS soccer programs have percentages of Latino players that are much higher than the overall Latino populations in the schools. The FFHS men’s team is more than a quarter Latino.

Ramirez grew up in Colombia, South America, and moved to the U.S. and played for what is now called Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. He has coached FFHS soccer since the school opened in 2004 — the first two years as an assistant coach and since 2006 as head coach.

“I think that the program has evolved to be one of the best in the state,” Ramirez said. “A lot of it is the contribution and the effort that the parents and players put forward to get better at the game.”

Cleaver agreed, observing that “You can go by most fields on any weekend, and you’ll see a bunch of kids out playing soccer. They’re not just out there kicking around. They’re really still working hard at getting better.”

Dare County’s head coaches also all note how invaluable the community support is.

One of Cleaver’s assistant soccer coaches operates Premier Soccer Training, which provides free training to middle-school, Manteo-area kids who may not have the resources for club soccer.

“It’s not a mistake that our kids are doing really well,” Cleaver said. “So much credit goes to so many people in the community for investing so much time, effort and resources into the kids, to make sure they have opportunities and training and get that development — because it’s not easy to do on a continual basis.”

If other sports offered similar opportunities for young future athletes, “they would see the same trend in progress as well,” he opined.

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Comments

  • Miguel # 36

    Thanks for the excellent and timely article about a fantastic sport.
    So many people l know complain that the low scoring output
    makes soccer boring.
    To them l suggest, please go and watch a full, live game at any level
    from middle/high school to professional and appreciate the athleticism and fitness level that is required by these athletes. Enjoy the tactical decision-making that enables the ball movement which sometimes results in scoring.
    It takes lots of skill and dedication to play soccer and l salute the
    many young people who continue to play the sport from the day
    their parents brought them to the pitch for the first time.
    Of course we love our American sports; we can embrace soccer as well.
    Keep on growing the sport, Dare County, and congratulations to the successful teams and programs on our sandbar.

    Sunday, Nov 27 @ 7:58 am
  • Justin

    Looks like the kids, parents, and coaches are on board. Now it’s time to get the county on board. Build the facilities to make this a Mecca of soccer. Fields are horrible! Build the facilities to start holding tournaments. Everyone else is doing their part. It’s time for the county to start putting up the money! If you can do it for senior citizens and pickleball everywhere, then the kids should be first in line. When are they having meetings about facilities for the kids?

    Wednesday, Nov 30 @ 6:01 am