Kicking it in a Hayfield

By Beacon Staff

After stints on the Nigerian Olympic soccer team and the Los Angeles Galaxy – the new home of superstar David Beckham – Michael Nsien is coaching kids in a hayfield outside of Kalispell.

It’s a nice place to find himself, he said.

“It’s great here,” Nsien said. “Everyone’s friendly. Everyone says hello.”

Nsien is in the area along with six other big-name soccer figures from around the nation and even Brazil to coach at the two-week annual Flathead Soccer Camp, which started on July 23 and runs until August 3. This year’s camp has about 150 kids between grades 4 and 12.

Local orthodontist Michael Stebbins founded the camp 10 years ago after clearing out half of his hayfield and reseeding it with different grass to form an area just shy of three full soccer fields. Local kids at the time had to leave the state to find the best coaching, Stebbins said. So he and Billy McNicol, who was the Montana Youth Soccer Association director at the time and is now an assistant on the U.S. women’s team, developed a straightforward plan.

“To go away to a good camp is so expensive,” Stebbins said. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t we bring the top-level coaches here?’”

So they did, with McNicol using his vast coaching connections to bring big-time coaches to the Flathead. This year’s coaching list is an all-star collection. Gerhard Benthin comes from the Brazil National Team and previously the Galaxy. Former University of Montana standout Heather Olson is the all-time goal scorer in Big Sky Conference history. Peter Boyer, the camp’s goalkeeper coach, holds three NCAA records from his playing days at Drew University. Matt Paton has coached at the college level for 16 years. The list goes on.

Tim Stefan, a coach from Bozeman who brought a group of kids for the second straight year, said the coaching is what separates this camp from others, adding that it’s “definitely the biggest” in the state too.

“Just sitting here watching,” Stefan said. “I’ve learned a lot.”

The camp is affordable at $155 per week, Stebbins said, especially considering the quality of coaches. If kids want to do the full two-week program, it costs $280. Some of the money goes to the coaches and the rest is reserved for local soccer programs.

“Everything goes back to the kids,” Stebbins said.

The two-week camp is divided into a morning session (9-11 a.m.) and an evening session (6:30-8:30 p.m.). The evening portion, Stebbins said, helps out high school kids who have summer jobs and can’t make the morning. Stebbins goes to camp everyday, though he says he leaves the instructing up to coaches.

“I just stand around and shake hands,” he joked.

Mark Plakorus, the camp’s head coach, has helped out at the camp every year except for one. He takes time off every year from coaching at Texas Christian University to come to the camp because he loves it, he said.

“I look forward to it,” he said. “I’ll work every day of the year (at TCU), but I have to have my time in Montana.”

Nolan Hamman, who will be a freshman at Flathead High School, said the coaches do a good job at keeping the camp fun, not just instructive. Games are frequent, he said.

“They’re worth being brought in from so far,” he said of the coaches.

Nsien said he was surprised girls far outnumbered boys at the camp and that local high schools did not coordinate more with Stebbins. It is a rare opportunity, he said, for local kids to experience such a wide array of different coaching styles and also to have great exposure for colleges.

“I think more of the high school teams should be involved,” Nsien said. “I’m surprised it’s not mandatory.”

“The kids are great here,” he added. “Whatever you tell them to do, they do. There’s not a lot of talking back like usual.”

The camp is for the kids, but coaches get their fun too. Stebbins organized various activities this year for the coaches, from whitewater rafting to golf. Even with all the activities and places to go, Boyer was still stuck on the hayfield-turned-soccer field, a fittingly Montana creation.

“It’s amazing,” he said, “that you could have two-and-a-half, three soccer fields in your backyard.”