Area soccer ‘started from scratch’

IRON MOUNTAIN – Soccer, as evidenced by the multitudes gripped with the goings-on in Brazil, ranks as the most popular sport in the world.

Soccer isn’t doing too badly in this area, either. Soccer Association for Youth’s Northern Soccer League reports more than 1,500 kids participating this year.

Area soccer has come a long way since the late 1970s and early 1980s when the sport began to grow.

“We started from scratch,” said Kingsford’s Jim Bittinger, one of the early organizers. “I’ve seen the improvement in area soccer. It’s tremendous.”

Northern Soccer League archives indicate Ed Chestolowski, after moving from the Green Bay area, got things going back. Around 70 youngsters took to the field.

Jim and Joan Bittinger arrived in this area in December of 1976 from Centerville, Ohio (south of Dayton). Their three boys – Jim, Andy and John – played soccer back in Ohio. Even in football-crazy Ohio, soccer was drawing bigger crowds.

“When we got here, the kids said, ‘there’s no soccer,'” Bittinger recalled. “They were crushed.”

Bittinger worked at the Niagara Mill, as did Chestolowski. They joined forces to build an area soccer program.

During Bittinger’s Ohio days, he became familiar with an Ohio-based Soccer Association for Youth. That organization was instrumental in the development of area soccer.

“The two of us got to talking and his son wanted to play soccer,” Bittinger said. “I told him about SAY. They’ve never left the state (Ohio) so I’ll see what we can do.”

Chestolowski, in the president’s role, worked on coaches, officials and field construction. Bittinger dealt with SAY.

“The fears we had back then were insurance,” Bittinger said. “We didn’t want to jump into anything without coverage. We talked with these SAY folks about coverage for everybody involved.”

This was new territory for SAY, with Ohio officials deciding to make the Iron Mountain-Kingsford area a franchise. SAY is now world-wide.

SAY approved the Iron Mountain-Kingsford franchise, asking Bittinger if he also wanted the “rest of the U.P. and half of Wisconsin.”

“No, all I want is Iron Mountain-Kingsford, Norway and Niagara,” Bittinger told SAY.

One Daily News story indicates SAY made its debut in 1980 with 300 youngsters. Jim Gruenewald, SAY executive director, conducted a meeting in 1981 at the former Mine Shaft Restaurant to inform people of his organization’s benefits.

“SAY came up and trained coaches,” Bittinger said. “We had seminars for referees.

“Ed had his hands full just getting coaches.”

Chestolowski and Bittinger also went to service organizations for donations.

“It was a lot of fun the first few years,” said Bittinger, who did some soccer coaching as did his sons. “Finance was a primary thing but it wasn’t as large an issue as finding SAY to come up here and support us.”

Bittinger, while talking about the early years of area soccer, was watching his granddaughter, Brooke, play at Marion Park. Five of his grandchildren have taken to the sport.

“They all think it’s neat,” he said. “When I look at it today and I drive around and see all these fields like this, it’s kind of a shock.

“The parents are cheering and they understand the game. I never thought it would be like this.”

Bittinger, who left SAY after five or six years, saluted the many volunteer coaches and coaches back then.

Today, Mike Tershner of Breitung Township serves as SAY Northern Soccer League president. The league includes Iron Mountain, Kingsford, Norway, Niagara, Crystal Falls and Florence.

The league motto is “to provide an opportunity for all youth to play recreational soccer.”

Just like they wanted some 35 years ago.