Nine-year-old Paige Simons has a soccer ball at her feet. She hits it forward and runs three steps, then repeats. Her coach cheers from the sideline.
"Go, Paige, go!" he yells.
Paige starts moving faster. Her foot swings back and strikes the ball, which finds its way into the goal. Parents lining the sidelines erupt with cheers.
"Good job, Paige!"
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This is a moment hundreds of kids in Whatcom County experience, thanks to the opportunity-rich soccer environment in the area. One of those opportunities is Whatcom County Youth Soccer Association's recreational spring league for kids 5 to 18.
For Paige, the league - which is also held in the fall - was the beginning of her love of the sport. She got into the league when she was in kindergarten and has played it ever since. Paige joined because her older sister, Madison, played, and now Paige's younger sister, Ava, is following the same track.
Recreational soccer leagues are all about the exercise, meeting friends and having fun, not about who wins or who loses.
"The No. 1 rule we have is to have fun," Paige says.
Pat Simons, Paige's father and coach, makes sure the athletes and parents work together to stay true to the rule.
"It's important for them to have a positive experience," he says. "Parents have to realize that it may or may not be a different experience from the one they had."
Paige's experience has been extremely positive because of the atmosphere Whatcom County promotes, her father says.
Once a kid grows older, they have opportunities to play competitively, furthering the concept that recreational leagues, especially for those at a young age, are for learning and for having fun.
Paige enjoys that she gets to make friends while staying active, something her father says is important.
"Whatever they want to do, we find a way to make it happen," he says of his kids. "They've tried dance, gymnastics, basketball, track and cross country."
A big part of keeping the atmosphere positive is conveying that mindset to team parents.
Pat Simons, and many other coaches, send emails to parents explaining what they expect in the upcoming season, to make sure everyone is on the same page. With kids who have been on the team before, he includes where the team left off and how they're moving forward.
Many kids stay on the same team throughout their childhood, building friendships along the way. But the teams endeavor to accept new players, too.
"We all say our names and what school we go to," Paige says. "We just try to greet them and welcome them to the team."
Many of the kids already know each other from school, because the teams are by region; Blaine, Eastside, Ferndale, Lakeside, Lynden, Meridian, Mount Baker, Nooksack, Northside and Southside.
Not all of the kids on a team attend the same school, so players meet new people and gain new friends.
"I play at recess with my school friends, and then I have the friends on my team," Paige says.
The difference between the team and a group of people playing at recess is the league's organization and positive approach.
"You can see or hear negativity, it's in your control," Pat Simons says.
Games on Saturdays at Northwest Soccer Park are noisy, but it's all cheers.
"From what I've seen as a coach, the parents have been good and really positive," Pat Simons says.
He can see the pep in his daughter's step when she's being encouraged by her teammates and the parents.
"My favorite part is being cheered on," Paige says.
When the season starts March 22, Paige will get to hear cheers again, and so will hundreds of other kids who benefit from the mecca of soccer that is Whatcom County.
"It's fun, so give it a try," Paige says to other kids debating whether to sign up. "You'll never know until you try."
RECREATIONAL SPRING SOCCER
When does the season start and end? The eight-week season starts March 22 and ends May 1.
How old does my kid have to be? Youths 5 to 18 can join.
How do I sign my kid up? Online registration is at whatcomsoccer.com. Paper registration forms are at Prostock Athletic Supply, Bellingham Sportsplex, Soccer City and Sports Authority Sporting Goods, among other locations. To register, a form must be completed, a copy of the athlete's birth certificate must be on file and fees must be paid.
How much does it cost? $76.
What does my kid need to play? The club provides a jersey. Parents provide the youth's black shorts, black socks, shinguards and soccer cleats.
How much of a time commitment is it? For younger players, practices are once a week, typically after 5 p.m. on a weekday. For older players, practices are twice a week. Games are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays at Northwest Soccer Park, at Northwest Avenue and West Smith Road.
Does my kid need experience playing soccer? No prior experience is necessary.