Niomi Krzystowczyk eagerly cheered on the Bravehearts while looking on at BREC’s Burbank Soccer Complex on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“Good job out there,” she yelled as players passed the ball and attempted a shot on goal against the opposing Global40. “Keep going.”
The 51-year-old was not cheering for her child playing, but for her husband, Doug. And she did so while waiting on the sideline to enter the game herself on a substitution.
Krzystowczyk is one of the 127 members of Baton Rouge Soccer’s Over-40 division, a recreational league which plays 90-minute games on Sunday afternoons.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said of playing in the league. “You get the joy you had as a kid running full out, because you don’t get that just by exercising at the gym on the treadmill.”
The league is open to both men and women age 40 years or older. However, a player may be 39 years old if they turn 40 during the season.
“As you get older, your time to go out and be active may be limited because of work or family responsibilities,” said Patrick Bueno, who serves as Baton Rouge Soccer’s adult leagues director. “This league offers a chance to get outside and be active, keep in shape and socialize with people they may not be around normally.”
Bueno said the Over-40 league offers a chance for players of all skill levels to play not only with friends or significant others, but even their parents.
“It’s really a social league,” he said “They don’t have a tournament. I don’t keep their win-loss results. There’s no referees. They’re really just out there to enjoy it. It’s really laid back.”
The league is open to players of all skill levels, Bueno said.
“You don’t have to have played soccer before to join this league,” he said. “Soccer is an easy sport to learn and to play. All you need is some space, a ball and people who want to enjoy their time together. The fact that the different levels of play can combine and still enjoy it is great.”
Krzystowczyk is an example of this, joining the league after watching her children and husband play the sport.
“It’s such a great cross-section of people,” she said. “I didn’t start playing until my 40s. Even after you’ve hit 40 and even if you’ve never played, you can come out here and have a lot of fun. Being coed is very nice, because I get to play with my husband.”
The coed league has 11 teams, with rosters ranging from 8 to 15 members. Players wear numbered jerseys, along with shin guards. Slide tackling is not allowed, and all players are limited to scoring twice per game. Teams are granted unlimited substitutions in a game, and all free kicks are indirect.
While Baton Rouge Soccer’s focus has been on youth leagues, Bueno said, its adult membership has grown to be the largest in the state.
“Just in our adult leagues, we have more than 1,000 members, including the 127 players in the Over-40 league,” he said.
Bueno said that the league “was on the back burner” for years before being retooled in 2013.
“There wasn’t a lot of interest in it,” he said. “We offer six different leagues. When I took over, I wanted all of the leagues to be consistent and feel like they were part of the organization. Players register as members, and I wanted them to feel like members. I’m working to improve it each season.”
Because the number of women playing in the league is significantly lower, Bueno said, the game structure can change to allow for balanced gameplay.
“We try to bring in more women, but it’s sometimes more difficult,” he said.
Because of this, Bueno said, the teams are allowed to play a seven-on-seven model, unless they have a female player on the field. To balance the teams, a male that is 65 years or older can play for the opposing team, counting as a female player.
Bueno said that the league features many players age 65 and older, and the rule allows these players more of a chance to participate.
“It’s amazing to see them as healthy as they are and enjoying it as much as they are at this point in their lives,” he said.
One such player is John Schulze who, at 77, is the oldest player in the Over-40 league.
“I’ve been playing soccer since about 1950, when I grew up in Berlin,” he said. “That was the only sport we had there. We’d play in the streets. Everyone there played.”
Schulze said he has been playing soccer in Baton Rouge since the early 1970s and has played with Baton Rouge Soccer since its inception.
“Out here, it’s not about winning. It’s about having a good time, enjoying yourself, good sportsmanship and not hurting anyone,” said Shulze, just before going into the game on a substitution.
Phil Van Zandt, 66, began playing soccer in his 50s and said he found out about the Over-40 league after suffering an injury while playing in the Over-30 league.
“Someone asked why I wasn’t playing in the Over-40 league,” he said. “I didn’t know it existed. So, I found out about it by accident, and it was one of the best accidents I’ve ever had.”
Van Zandt said he enjoys the opportunity for players of all skill levels to take part in the league.
“Most leagues, I’d never be able to play because I don’t have the pace to keep up with the younger guys,” he said. “But in Over-40, no one really cares. You play at your speed.”
Bueno said the Over-40 league’s game schedule is different from BRSC’s other leagues.
“Our other leagues play a typical eight-game schedule with a tournament at the end,” he said. “This league has a fall and a spring schedule, but they play at least 12 games per season. They may play more, depending on weather.”
In addition to the regular Sunday games, the league’s players also organize a weekly pickup game at 6 p.m. on Wednesday nights at Independence Park, Bueno said.
“Because you have to be a registered member to take part in the Sunday games, this offers people who maybe can’t commit to the league a chance to play,” he said.
Early registration for the league, which typically is held up to a month before the start of the season, is $43. After that time, regular registration is $68. The cost includes insurance and field availability.
While league registration used to be during a specific time period, Bueno said he is opening registration year-round starting in the spring of 2016.
“In this league, we have players who will play for a few months and may get hurt,” he said. “They take a little longer to recover, so that team is now down a player and has to grab someone else to fill that position. Opening the registration period helps the teams out in that regard.”
Baton Rouge Soccer currently has approximately 7,000 registered players throughout all of the leagues, Bueno said.
Schulze said he feels the Over-40 league is evidence of the growth of soccer in the Baton Rouge area in the past 20 years.
“Soccer is doing very well here,” he said. “Right now, I believe, we have more soccer players than any other sport. I love seeing it grow here like it has, and it’s only getting bigger.”
The sport’s popularity around the world also helps to create a very diverse community, Bueno added.
“When people from other countries who maybe played soccer before move here, we give them the chance to stay involved with the sport they grew up playing back home,” Bueno said. “It’s really visible in the Over-40 league. Playing with people from different cultures give you a chance to learn about them. We’ve got plenty of different cultures coming together to play a game they all love. It’s just awesome.”