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Wingate International Soccer Academy going strong at 25

by Chuck Gordon

In 1994, the Wingate International Soccer Academy wasn’t really much of an academy. And it was barely international.

In a pair of one-week camps, about 35 Union County kids received instruction from Gary Hamill, a Belfast native who’d been men’s soccer coach at Wingate for less than a year.

“People laughed and said, ‘There’s no international kids in the academy,’” Hamill says. “I said, ‘I’m the international part.’”

Now in its 25th year, the camp has grown 1,000% in terms of the number of participants, has widened its scope to incorporate an individual showcase, a team camp and a goalkeeping academy, and is much more international in nature. In town this week are a team from Chile and another from England, and players come from all over the country looking to showcase their talents in front of up to 25 college coaches.

Players eat and sleep on campus, but much of the camp is run at the six-field Jesse Helms Park across U.S. 74 from the Wingate campus.

WISA is one of dozens of camps that call Wingate University home during the summer. In addition to soccer for preschool through high school, the University hosts basketball camps, five different sessions of football camp, swimming lessons, tennis camp and lacrosse-prospect camp. There are also non-athletics camps, such as the Free Enterprise Leadership Challenge, the Broyhill Leadership Conference, and Upward Bound, which targets three types of high school student: those from low-income families, those in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree, and those from rural areas.

By summer’s end, more than 3,300 kids will participate in a camp at the University. That’s pretty impressive, considering Wingate’s entire student body (including graduate and professional students) is around 3,600.

Seven hundred of those 3,300 campers will be refining their dribbling, passing and shooting skills at WISA. After starting life as a skills camp for local kids, WISA has grown into a highly regarded recruiting showcase and upper-level team camp – run by a coaching staff that, combined, has won nearly 400 matches and numerous conference titles and made several NCAA tournament appearances, including winning the 2016 men’s NCAA Division II national championship.

Kids at Wingate soccer camp

Players from all 50 states have taken part over the years, flying in from 40 different states in 2016 and from 25 states last year. Coaches come from Great Britain, South America, Europe and the Caribbean.

Hamill says Wingate’s camp offers more gameplay and thus a better opportunity for players to show off their skills for college coaches.

“The Chilean group used to go to the Disney showcase,” he says. “That’s three games in three days, and you can’t guarantee that anybody’s going to watch your game. Bring them here and you can guarantee them that they’re getting training from college coaches, and there’s anywhere from 10 to 15 college coaches that’ll watch their games over a four-day period. It’s a higher-level experience for them.”

The women’s program especially has benefited from hosting a prestigious camp. Last fall, all 28 players on the Bulldog roster had been WISA campers at some point, and in addition to 13 from North Carolina, players hailed from New Mexico, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota.

It might seem counterintuitive to bring in coaches from other colleges to work at and observe your camp. But Hamill says their presence acts as a draw for the best players.

And the junior skills camps, for ages 4-12, is still going strong. The kids learn fundamental soccer skills in a low-pressure, fun environment that players, parents and even grandparents love.

“He’s just dying to be able to stay for the all-day camp,” Beth Edwards said of her 6-year-old grandson, Jake LaBell. It’s the second summer she’s brought him and his younger sister, Karley, 4, to soccer camp, and they’re the second generation in the family to take part.

Ryan Hoilman, coordinator of event operations and conferencing at the University, sees several benefits for participants in summer camps hosted on college campuses.

“I think that the overall benefit for a camper is the exposure they get to both children their age as well as coaches and staff on a collegiate level, which allows them to gain a new perspective and a competitive edge that they can take back to their school team, travel team, or in the classroom,” Hoilman said.

He also sees the summer programming as a boon to the University.

“As long as our coaches, staff and outside parties continue to host successful camps, then it is a bridge for them to consider Wingate in the future as a potential student and maybe even an athlete,” Hoilman said. “I came to Wingate when I was in seventh grade for a music camp, and that, along with the men’s soccer program, is what made me want to come to Wingate as a student.”

July 3, 2018