Senior Soccer program makes cautious return

Jack Phillips, right, of the Village of Pinellas, takes the temperature of George Strope, of the Village of Silver Lake, before they play with The Villages Senior Soccer club at The Villages Polo Club on Tuesday.

John Ellis knows soccer.

He worked for the British government, establishing soccer programs around the world. His daughter, Jill, coached the U.S. Women’s National Team to World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019.

Lately, he also has had to know about viruses and how to keep them from spreading. And he’s doing everything he can to ensure members of the Senior Soccer group in The Villages don’t catch COVID-19.

Ellis, of the Village of Bonnybrook, has been coordinator of the senior soccer program since 2008, when he launched it. The group stopped playing in the spring because of the pandemic. In May, the group briefly got back together but Ellis was still concerned, so at their first meeting he put the group back on hiatus.

In the months since then, Ellis and others in the group have developed a tracing system to help stop the spread of the virus among the players.

Players sign up in advance that they’re coming to a practice. Drop-ins are discouraged. Temperatures are taken as players get on the field and everyone maintains their distance from each other during the activities.

“We’re going to take things a little steady,” Ellis said Tuesday at the group’s first session together in months.

Ellis said the group would focus on technical work for the restart of the program.

“We haven’t played for six months,” he said. “We probably need to warm up properly.”

Part of Ellis’ worries about COVID-19 come from his days as a Royal Marines commando, when he served in many parts of the world where viruses ran rampant.

“Viruses are not new to me,” he said.

Ellis’ players appreciate his concern for their health.

“I feel a lot safer — we’re keeping our distance and doing more session work,” said Jack Phillips, of the Village of Pinellas, who’s been playing with the group since 2008.

The tracking system uses Google Forms, where each player responds to CDC-published questions about their health. If they’re healthy, the person can participate. For this reason, Ellis wants to talk to all prospective players before they come to practice.

Jeannie Nelson, of the Village of Belvedere, played softball over the summer but welcomed the chance to get back to soccer and the club’s safety protocols.

“I think it’s awesome — safety first!” she said. “I’m dying to get back in there and back into shape.”

Chris Asbury, of the Village of Pine Hills, agreed.

“It’s necessary to be able to make sure we track anybody when they could risk the entire group and community,” he said. Asbury said the sport keeps him in shape, which helps his immune system.

Ellis said the first week of practice would serve as kind of a test.

“This is a temporary beginning,” he said. “We’re going to see how this goes. We want to see how many people want to come back.”

At least 20 people were present for the first practice. When all the players were checked in, Ellis started them with a slow jog around cones. He split the players into two groups to allow for more distancing. When the soccer balls were rolled out for drills, Ellis cautioned his charges: “Don’t handle the balls at all!”

Ellis wasn’t letting the players off easy because of the layoff though. When they’d kicked the balls around for a bit, he called them into a big circle and gave a quick critique of their play. After a short demonstration, he sent them back to practice with the exhortation, “Let’s go out there and get it!”

Senior writer Steve Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or