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March 20, 2011
By PAUL MONTANA - Bulletin Sports Writer

If you want confirmation that the Smith River Sports Complex is a state-of-the-art soccer facility, just ask Virginia Tech men's soccer coach Mike Brizendine why he has brought his team there two years in a row.

"I mean, look at this facility!" he said Saturday with a smile, in spite of his team's 4-2 loss in an exhibition game to High Point just a few moments earlier.

"Every time that we've done it, they've done a great job," he added. "It's just a great place to be. We get fan support, we're treated well. Plan on seeing the Hokies here for a number of years."

Tech was one of eight men's college teams to attend the second annual Smith River College Showcase at the SRSC on Saturday, and Billy Russo, the director of operations at the complex, said that all plan on coming back next year.

The other teams came from High Point, UNC-Greensboro, James Madison, Radford, Appalachian State, Lees-McRae and Averett.

"I think it went really well," Russo said following the conclusion of the last match.

"A lot of these teams don't have turf facilities like this," said Enda Crehan, the director of coaching with the Piedmont Youth Soccer League and an assistant coach for Averett's men's team. "It's just an overall great event."

Even though the stands weren't packed - Russo admitted he would have liked to see larger crowds, particularly in Saturday's perfect weather - there were plenty of reasons for the showcase's participants to smile.

The college teams got to play quality competition - in some cases, better competition then they're used to seeing.

And jammed in the middle of the day's college contests was a showcase game for the Uppr9t Academy, a local training academy that features players from the Henry County, Roanoke and Greensboro areas. It is run by Wes Lewis, a Martinsville native, whom area coach Richard Hall called "one of the best technical trainers around."

Uppr9t features some of the most talented players from Henry County's schools - talented enough that the college coaches in attendance were in the stands watching, with folders containing player profiles and notepads in hand.

The academy divided the teams based on the local clubs players compete with - a Roanoke Stars team (red) and a Guilford United FC team (white), which is where most of the Henry County players compete.

The two teams tied 0-0 in a 45-minute game, but the score was little more than a footnote.

"Three times on the sideline, I had a High Point coach ask me who a kid was," said Hall, coach of the white team. "It's a great opportunity to get kids that work really hard an opportunity to be seen without having to travel all over the place," not to mention avoiding a costly tournament-entry fee that most college showcase tournaments require.

Added fellow white team coach David Keys: "A lot of the showcases are many teams and a few coaches, and here it was just two teams and a lot of coaches."

And for the coaches, too, it was a unique opportunity to get their teams quality matches and recruit all at the same location.

"That doesn't happen very often. That's obviously a bonus," Brizendine said.

"I think it's a great concept," High Point coach Dustin Fonder said. "All of the college coaches who brought our college teams here, it gave us during a natural break something to do, and it's something for the local kids to get exposed to the college coaches. So I think it's a win-win for everybody involved."

While the Uppr9t showcase featured the most local players, it was not the main event of the day.

The matchup between Virginia Tech and High Point was not only the marquee game of the event, but also an intriguing matchup. The Hokies, out of the powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference, have struggled to losing records since making the national semifinals in 2007. High Point is in a considerably weaker Big South conference; on the other hand, the Panthers went an undefeated 8-0-0 to win the league's regular-season championship.

The Hokies came out strong in the first half, scoring goals in the eighth and 47th minutes while dominating possession. But High Point rallied after halftime, scoring four unanswered goals, including two crowd-pleasing free kick goals from Shawn Sloan - one of them from roughly 40 yards away.

Fonder said it was "a good response character-wise" for his team to come back from the two-goal deficit; Brizendine, however, noted that he substituted most of his reserves in the second half, and expected the quality of play to go down for his side.

Tech, of course, is of particular interest to the high volume of fans in this area. Brizendine was an assistant coach on the team that made the College Cup in 2007 before taking over the program in 2009.

"This spring, we're making leaps and bounds," he said of the program's status. "We've had 10 recruits sign for this next year, so a good freshman class coming in this year. We're going to need to bring in another one, and that's going to add quality and depth. And I think that's gonna get us back to where we're accustomed to being."

Not to be outdone, the SRSC came out ahead, as well.

Russo said that the only expenses incurred by the complex were for hiring officials and part-time staff members at the event, which came to roughly $1,000. He estimated that concessions drew $2,000, and between $600 and $700 in ticket sales.

And next year, Russo said he wants to make the event even bigger. He wants to add a high school tournament to the day. He also said he wants to invite more college teams, noting that several schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University, were interested in participating, but couldn't do to the overlap of their spring breaks.

"Once we get this event more established," Russo said, "I think it will be a really big event."