Tears, cheers as Tropics help support TOPSoccer for Polk's special needs youngsters

by Brian Ackley

Tropics players and many of their fans couldn't quite imagine life without soccer.

But for some Polk County kids – those with emotional or physical disabilities -- the dream of taking the pitch was for a long time only that.

But in 2015, Lakeland FC – one of the largest youth soccer organizations in Florida which merged with the Florida Tropics of the Major Arena Soccer League and Lakeland Tropics of the USL Premier Development Weekend this past summer – started its TOPSoccer program to allow all children to experience the joy of the “beautiful game.”

Several months ago, the Lake Wales Soccer Club added a TOPS program as well, meaning more than 40 area youngsters are now playing soccer, something the Tropics have embraced as part of their community outreach efforts. Players, including Pedro Ivo Dias, a midfielder who is playing for both the PDL side and the MASL team, have been on hand to honor the athletes at events this fall.

Morgan Shupsky, a senior a George Jenkins High School and a county all-star in volleyball, heads up TOPSoccer for Lakeland FC. Her father Dan is a board member for the soccer group.

“I have gotten so much more out of it than I thought initially. When I was going into it, I really didn't have any expectations because I didn't want to get my hopes up. So we started our first season with eight athletes, and I thought that was just awesome. I really didn't think we'd get eight. When we started we didn't have any other program to go off of, we just set up stand at registration and hoped that people would come,” she noted.

Each player is paired with their own individual soccer “buddy” while on the pitch. The success of the program has allowed Lakeland FC to offer TOPS both in the fall and spring.

“The next season we had 16, so we doubled, and that was an awesome season. I think it was the second season when I was like, 'This is really cool. People are spreading the word and really enjoying it.' That's when we started playing games, and we had a lot of the same athletes come back from the first season, and we had more buddies,” she noted. “The first practice of our second season we had so many athletes we didn't have enough buddies. We weren't ready for that many athletes. We've got buddies from George Jenkins, Lakeland, Lakeland Football Club, from all over.”

Shupsky will be heading to college next fall, meaning the program will be looking for someone to take over as its chief organizer and cheerleader.

She also noted that the program is important for the parents as well.

“I know the parents, whole families, would come to the practices,and the last practice would be a full game. We had ref there, we had the lines drawn out. There were grandparents there, aunts and uncles there. A lot of them don't get a chance to see their kids compete, so they don't really see what their kids can do,” Shupsky said. And the kids come out and are doing all this awesome stuff  and their parents are on the sidelines crying because they're like 'Oh my gosh. We never thought my kid could do this.' And that's happened with so many of the athletes, that's really, really cool.”

Those wishing to volunteer their time, either as an organizer or as a buddy, are encouraged to contact Lakeland FC at 863-240-0101.