NORTHPORT — An unwavering, unbridled passion for soccer long after their high school, college and professional careers ended is the athletic glue that binds Midcoast adult footballers, who gather weekly year-round — indoors or out — to dribble, pass and head the ball, to make saves and score goals, exercise, experience camaraderie and, most importantly, build lasting friendships.

The groups, which include athletes from Camden-Rockland and Belfast areas, gather to play pick-up games among themselves, but, once a year, they come together to battle toe-to-toe, test their skill, compete, raise money for worthy causes and, of course, earn pitch bragging rights.

Abi Razo. Photo by Ken Waltz

That happened for the second straight year, this time on the fog-enveloped, artificial playing surface at Point Lookout on Saturday afternoon, May 21 in the annual Knox-Waldo Soccer Challenge.

When the beautiful runs, crisp passes, headers, saves and overall fun had concluded, the Belfast group had grabbed a second consecutive win over their Camden-Rockland counterparts.

Owen Cartwright, left, and Maria Millard. Photo by Ken Waltz

Waldo County dominate this year’s coed game en route to a 6-1 victory, a mere 12 months after it won the inaugural title 1-0, in a game the Knox squad mostly controlled.

This year’s game was organized and spearheaded by Maria Millard of the Belfast group and Gerald Weinand from the Camden-Rockland group. The contest raised $561 for AIO Food and Energy Assistance of Rockland. Last year, the first game raised money for Midcoast United Charities.

Gerald Weinand. Photo by Ken Waltz

In Saturday’s pitch affair, which again included no referees — players called their own infractions — and show a ton of sportsmanship, Guido Corno scored four goals and Joe Anderson and Kathleen Dunkle one for the winners. Kelly O’Connor netted the lone goal for the Knox group.

The team winner, in this case, the Belfast group, maintained control of the silver-painted lobster buoy as the championship trophy.

Brian Simmonds. Photo by Ken Waltz

While playing the game was the main ingredient of the afternoon, sharing a love of the most played sport in the world (it is estimated 265 million play soccer) was equally important.

For those who gathered Saturday it was another opportunity to rekindle their love affair with one of their favorite activities — namely, fútbol.

The groups include newer players, former high school and college standouts, as well as a handful who saw semi- and professional playing opportunities back in the day. And there even includes a solid contingent of “soccer moms” who lace up their cleats and get the proverbial kick out of the game their children play.

A group gathers in front of the goal. Photo by Ken Waltz

While their “glory days” may be behind them, players, ages 20s to 60s, demonstrate weekly they still got game, can recognize and set up a nice run, make solid passes and kicks, slide to make saves when necessary and simple play the game with inspiration, speed and grace, albeit a bit slower these days.

Some of the players were born and raised in the Midcoast, while others came from other parts of Maine, the country or even other countries.

Collin Cunning. Photo by Ken Waltz

Despite where each began, they now are Midcoasters, with their bond being the love of the game and wish to remain physically and mentally active — and meet others with their passion for soccer.

For Saturday, the larger field and hardness of the Point Lookout turf, which enables the ball to bounce higher and roll faster, proved a learning curve for the players, but they eventually mastered the conditions.

Of course, for the Waldo group, adapting is never difficult because nothing prevents them from playing the game, no matter what the weather throws at them.

Guido Corno, front, and Windham Veevaert. Photo by Ken Waltz

The Belfast group plays outdoors year-round at Troy Howard Middle School and under the lights at Belfast Area High School — even in the dead of winter. The Knox group, some of whom wore shirts that said FU (Friends United), plays on the indoor turf field at The PITCH in Warren during the winter and outdoors during other parts of the year.

Corno, for example, has an interesting history in the game. He has played since he was a young boy in Italy. He had the opportunity to play semi-pro in Italy (Serie D with Monza). He then played college ball in Australia at the University of Tasmania, on a squad that won the national championship in 2001. He also had opportunity to play in the international Asia-Pacific games, while, when studying for his PhD, played in the Oregon State League.

Erin Jackson and Shiloh Field. Photo by Ken Waltz

Corno said it is “great fun and hope to keep playing for a long time.”

Corno said, for the Belfast group, what started as three or four players kicking around a ball in early 2020 during the height of the pandemic, has evolved to regular, twice-a-week pick-up games. The group has grown over the past two years to about 40 members.

“We never stopped playing outdoors, even during winter (on ice, snow, sleet, you name it), building our commitment to a space where anybody could exercise, have fun and share a bit of life during these uneasy times,” he said. “Our Belfast pick-up group has created a small, but solid, space to interact, connect and share with community members in Belfast and beyond.

The Belfast-area group, winners of the second annual game. Photo courtesy of Maria Millard

“Our pick-up games evolved from a mere sporting opportunity twice a week, to an excuse and a need to share our experience through the pandemic as well as a stable human connection during [these trying] times. Soccer is wonderfully welcoming and the perfect chance to connect with anybody regarding background and race, building that human connection that lasts through years.”

Millard said Corno has a full-time job and two young children, but, without fail, organizes pick-up soccer twice a week. “In his emails, he provides weather and field reports and encouragement to attend,” she said. “After the pick-up games, he emails game highlights.”

Millard, 37, said during the early stages of the pandemic the Belfast players committed to playing outdoors during the winter to, of course, socially distance as much as possible, be safe and also “because we needed an outlet, you know. It had been a really hard time and everyone agreed we would play outside and respect each other’s space.”

She said in the winter the fields often were covered in ice chunks and players often fell, but when the snow on top was able to be groomed by a snowmobile, it was not bad. “We will do anything to play,” she said.

The Belfast-area soccer moms, Yvette LaHaye, Shilo Field, Maria Millard and Kathleen Dunkle, along with Guido Corno, left, and Collin Cunning. Photo courtesy of Maria Millard

When spring came in 2021, the group wanted to connect with other players and possible have a more significant game, instead of the usual pick-up games. “Interestingly, my dad was the one who said, ‘You just play pick-up all the time, why don’t you challenge a team to a real game?’ I thought that was a good idea.”

Millard said she used to live in Rockport so knew many of the players on the Camden-Rockland team, so she reached out “to her buddies and said, ‘We would like to formally challenge you to a game this spring.’ They said great. They were totally enthused about it.”

So last year’s game was organized and it was a fun, friendly affair, as players introduced themselves before the game (that tradition carried on this year) and teams gathered after for food and drinks.

“The idea was like community connection and sort of getting through a hard time,” Millard said. “Finding something that brought us all joy … We need it. It like keeps us sane. People show up because they just need friendship.”

Abi Razo, 34, of Washington, said she has played soccer since second grade “and honestly can’t imagine it not being a part of my life. It’s always just been my happy place.”

She said when she moved to Maine in 2015, “I knew soccer needed to continue to be a part of my life and I was looking for a way to meet people since I was new to the area. The folks I’ve met through Sunday morning pick-up and playing at The Pitch are now some of the most important people in my life.”

Razo said, in echoing the sentiments of others, “It feels really great to play with a group of people who have a genuine love for the game and are also interested in giving back to the community. It doesn’t seem to ever matter who you are, where you are from, or how long it’s been since you’ve been on the field, soccer is a universal language and it’s such an amazing way to bring people together. I feel the soccer community here in Midcoast Maine is something really special.”

The teams pose for a photo before the game. Photo by Ken Waltz

Players of all skill and ages are welcome to participate and that is not lost on Weinand, whose older children, Bea and Jim, were standout student-athletes, including soccer players, for the Oceanside school system. Like so many from the area, the two got their start with Dutch Soccer Academy.

Weinand said, at age 59, he still enjoys getting on the field to play. That is, of course, when he not on his bike logging 40 to 60 miles a week.

“It’s really about the people, and, to a lesser degree, the exercise,” he said about playing soccer, but added, “I am one of the weaker players, but everyone is supportive and really just wants to have fun playing the beautiful game. That’s not to say that it’s not competitive — it is, but in a friendly way. Not sure how many years I have left — I have stopped playing in the men’s league as I just can’t contribute anymore — but as long as I can keep telling my knees to be quiet, I’ll be out there.”

Weinand said the Knox group includes at least half-dozen men and women who played at least Div. III college soccer. For example, O’Connor, who scored the team’s goal on Saturday, played at a high level in college at Arkansas.

Another example, among many, of the diversity of the adult players is Collin Cunning, who played keeper for the Belfast group Saturday. He grew up locally and previously played professionally overseas.

“I love it,” said Brian Simmonds, 32, of Waldoboro, who played locally as a youngster and credits DSA for instilling in him the skills and love for the game. “It has been a part of this community since I was a teenager and I’m really proud of the group we have. It is definitely the passion, you know. It is what keeps me sane during the week … I have been lucky enough to find another group of people who share my passion.”

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