Rapids State of the Union

December 1, 2017


Hello all Rapids Families!

Over the past year the Rapids have gone through some changes, and I wanted to reach out and explain where we stand as a club and where we hope to go in the future. It’s been quite the learning process for me personally, trying to understand the different programs we offer and how each is run with its own unique set of challenges, but I think there has been some positive growth from us as a club and I’m very excited about the future. 

Programs –

Academy Micro (5-8)

The purpose of hosting a spring “Academy” for young players is to teach the basic skills required to enjoy the game of soccer. The spring of 2017 included over 100 players aged 5-8 in our Academy Micro Program! This was a huge positive for our future, as these players will make up the backbone of our competitive teams for years to come.

With those huge numbers comes a great responsibility, and while we were able to handle that number of players we are always striving to be better.  Our coach/player ratio was lower than we hoped for, and our curriculum for those players needs to improve every season.

During the spring of 2018, we are going to revamp the Academy Micro Program and add in a more specific curriculum that aims to improve the technical abilities of the players graduating from the program. The fun games and activities are a huge part of the learning process for these young players, and we want to continue to create an environment in which each player can grow and discover the game on their own, and also give the coaches more resources and structure to ensure that players can reach their potential during their sessions. Our hope is that all these young players learn the FUNdamental skills of the game, enjoy playing each Tuesday and Thursday, and are ready to join the U9/U10 Youth Competitive teams when they graduate from the Academy.

Spring Competitive

We have two spring competitive groups – Youth Competitive (U9/10/11) and Competitive (U12/13). The difference between these groups is that beginning at U12, the teams are registered in the Montana State Youth Soccer Association League, meaning we schedule formal competitive matches against other MYSA Clubs around the state. It costs a lot more to register these teams in the league, and the registration costs need to go up to cover it. However, it does ensure steady games and a consistent schedule, as well as more competitive matchups. The U9/10/11 teams are scheduled in friendly jamboree games via club-to-club communications.

This past season the Rapids enacted a policy of drawing a hard line between players playing U12 and U13. The final year of playing 9v9 is such a benefit to player development that we feel rushing young players on to the full 11v11 pitch does more harm than good. Keeping all U12 players in their age group is beneficial for those players and the entire age group. Time and time again we’ve seen the benefits of keeping players playing with smaller numbers for as long as possible.

Beginning this coming spring, we would also like to draw a hard line between U10 (7v7) and U11 (9v9). During the past two seasons we have fielded mixed U10/U11 teams in each gender, as our numbers have been awkward at times and our priority has been to at least field teams for players to play. And while during this past fall season especially the amount of growth seen on these U10/11 teams has been astounding, we would like to start utilizing our growing numbers in a way that ensures players are not being rushed to a larger field before they need to. We are unsure how we will deal with awkward numbers of registrations in the future, but the goal is to also ensure that U10 players continue to play 7v7 to develop those basic fundamental skills before they hit the larger 9v9 field of U11 and U12.

We have also enacted roster limits and practice players to try and make sure that players are placed in the optimum environment for growth. A “practice player” is a player who participates in practices only, and is invited to attend games if there is an opening due to another player missing. During the fall season, we offered these players a chance to participate in recreational games as well. We are learning the best ways to communicate these types of opportunities to our members, and are looking forward to solidifying these processes as we move forward.

Flathead Valley United

Perhaps the most exciting thing about this past year was the introduction of a program that unifies the MYSA league clubs in the valley to offer amazing opportunities for players to play on teams of other like-minded players. As a club, the Rapids have tried to offer opportunities for players based mainly in Columbia Falls and Whitefish, and each age group has faced various difficulties in terms of numbers and development level. When 12 players come out to try out for the competitive team, it’s sometimes difficult to field a team that can truly develop each player the way they need to be developed. Our population in the valley makes it difficult to dilute the player pool between multiple clubs, and finding a way to work together for the benefit of all players is very exciting.

During our first day of tryouts for the 03 and 04 boys and girls, it was amazing to look out across the field and see the massive amount of players coming out for this program. These United teams are going to allow players to grow and compete against others at a similar ability level, and will allow players to shine within their teams and be supported by those around them.

This is still a new program, and we are anticipating a few bumps in the road. It is going to take some getting used to, as players may have to travel farther to practice once or twice per week, or as players and families get used to the idea of playing for “FVU” as opposed to FSC or the Rapids. Bringing these teams together is in the best interest of every player who wants to play, and it’s important for all members of both clubs to work through any difficulties and learn to come together for the benefit of the players.

We are looking forward to figuring out how to incorporate out u13 teams in this program soon, so that as soon as players reach the 11v11 field we are merging them together and forming multiple teams per age group. Before u13, while players still have the opportunity to play 9v9, the clubs are going to focus on keeping strong age groups and developing large player pools so that everyone is ready for the full 11v11 club seasons.

Montana Youth Soccer Association is starting to evolve as well, with a more balanced schedule and specific team divisions of Premier, Select, and Classic. The Premier League begins this coming spring with home-and-home matches and league standings that count towards a tournament berth. The select league with a similar structure will hopefully begin the following spring.

Within FVU itself, we have the ability with our combined resources to offer even more to players looking for better opportunities. From bringing back our speed and agility training, to offering realistic advice on how to contact, learn about, prepare for, and eventually play at the next level after graduating from high school.

All told, these next few years will be very exciting for Montana soccer in general and soccer here in the valley specifically. While we navigate these uncharted waters it’s important to remember that we are trying to grow the payer pool and offer an opportunity for every single player in the Flathead Valley to develop and find success on and off the field.

Competitive Teams Overall

This past spring saw the introduction of a unified curriculum within the organization as an attempt to raise the standards to solidify the process of development for all players. It’s a process to ensure that each team is developing players and teams to a certain standard, and that process takes longer than anyone would like. However, each passing season our coaching staff becomes more used to the idea of following a cohesive plan to prepare players for the next stage, I personally become more familiar with how to ensure coaches are creating the best environments for growth, and we as a group learn how to better articulate and implement these ideas so that all Rapids teams are growing and preparing for the next level together.

As we move forward in our closer relationship with FSC, the idea is to implement a similar plan across all teams in the valley so that when players start playing together at the older ages everyone is on the same page and time that should be used on advancing soccer skills is not spent instead sorting through playing styles and learning a new soccer language.

Finally, our focus throughout everything we do is on player development - not just obtaining results. We obviously want to be competitive and find success on the field, but we are unwilling to compromise developing players in order to win games, especially at the younger ages. While it would be easier, for example, to play our fastest players up front and just play the ball long and let them win it, we are much more focused on having our teams play possession-oriented soccer and keeping the ball on the ground. While it may achieve more results to play the most talented players at U9-U12, we want to spread the playing time around and make sure that the largest player pool is developed, as we understand the players grow at different ages and rates. These ideas make our teams and players much more competitive in the long run. We want to keep a large pool of players involved and growing at younger ages so that we have competitive teams in High School and with FVU. It is imperative that our coaches and parents understand that our youth competitive teams are focusing on keeping every player involved and learning to play the game the right way as opposed to sacrificing growth and players for results. Please keep those concepts in mind as we move through the season!

Summer Camp

Once again, our summer camp this past year was a huge success. With the former professional player Damion Blackburn leading the way and a staff of Rapids and guest coaches with years of playing experience helping each age group, we had well over 100 players join us for a week of sun and soccer. It was the first camp I had been involved in and I was very impressed with the daily practice plans Coach Damion had each coach follow. We finished the camp with ice cream and a slip n’ slide to celebrate the end of another successful week of soccer.

Next summer we will once again have Coach Damion back to lead the group, and we are going to implement a coaching rotation so that all coaches have a chance to work with all age groups, giving players a variety of styles and perspectives from coaches all following a unified curriculum. We think this will allow coaches the opportunity to have a great amount of influence on the players, and players will be more excited to arrive each day to learn from a new coach and play some new games.

Summer Adult Leagues

The Rapids adult league consisted of two categories – a Men’s League and a Co-Rec league. Both leagues so record numbers as we fielded 5 full Men’s teams and had over 80 players participate in the Co-Rec league.

All games were held at Grouse Mountain park, with Men’s games on Monday evenings and Co-Rec games on Tuesday evenings. This system worked very well, as we had certified referees, recorded scores, kept track of the standings, and finished the season with playoffs and the crowning of a championship team.

Next summer we are looking at finding ways to improve on what is already a very successful and fun league. From offering a women’s league, to raising registration fees but holding the games at Smith Field, we are always open to hearing from our members about the best way forward with all of our programs. If you are interested in playing or have an idea for what you’d like to see, please let us know!

Fall Recreational - Columbia Falls and Whitefish

Both our fall recreational and our fall competitive season were adversely affected this fall by weather (smoke) and circumstances outside of our control (threats). Despite that, our recreational coordinators and coaches did an amazing job of keeping our season under control and moving in the right direction, so I want to take a moment to thank all of those volunteers profusely for their time and dedication to those kids.

It was my first experience with our recreational program and I definitely see areas we can improve next year. After a season learning where the gaps in communication exist, we as a group are much better prepared to make sure there are no families left feeling confused as to the details of the season. Everything including team formations, coaching assignments, scheduling, practice plans, and uniform ordering and distribution has been analyzed and plans made for their improvement next year.

The season itself was a great success, as over 500 players were able to participate in six weeks of games and practices. We’ve never had a better uniform distribution year, and our teams have never played better soccer. These recreational players make up the core of the soccer community here in the valley, and we couldn’t be more excited for these players to have the opportunity to participate in this program.

Fall Competitive

Our fall competitive season saw record numbers or players and teams, as we jumped from around 85 players to 130 players in a single year. The best part about having these higher numbers is that we are able to form teams more able to grow and develop together, as we are not mixing age groups as much and players are generally succeeding within their birth year.

Watching the improvement of each team from the beginning of the season to the end was astounding. Fielding 8 teams in the final tournament of the year resulted in 2 championships, 3 final appearances, and more success for each team than had been achieved at any point in the season. Our coaching staff did an amazing job, and while I didn’t get as much of a chance as I would have liked to help and influence each team, I was able to see how much our staff dedicated to their teams and how much improvement Rapids players can achieve over such a short period of time.

Each season is a learning experience for me, and for as successful as the season was I always want to find ways to be better. From improving the way our coaches interact with their teams and create positive environments for growth, to adjusting the way we as a group form teams and put players in positions to succeed, everything is analyzed and adjusted. Moving forward, putting a hard line between U10 and U11 players (similar to the U12/U13 situation) will once again allow players to continue to play 7v7 and grow within their age groups as long as possible. Another key component will be to provide more resources to coaches for high-level practice plans, and be more involved and available to coaches who are interested in raising their level of coaching. I am very much looking forward to our competitive teams in the future, as we already have such a solid base on which to build, and these players are poised to play some of the best soccer in the state.

Fundraising –

One of the most discouraging things to me about youth soccer is the expense. In most other countries, soccer is the sport that everyone can play, as systems are set up that focus on soccer through professional teams financing clubs through their academies. This system is still in its infancy here, and in the meantime non-profits like our struggle continuously to keep registration costs as low as possible for families.

Here is a link to a breakdown registration fees for each program. As you can see, we keep registration fees as low as we can without going under, and even then we rely heavily on fundraising to cover the gaps.

This past year we ran a raffle in both the spring and fall, asking the players to sell $5 raffle tickets for a chance to win cash prizes, apparel, and gift cards. These raffles were a huge success and we were able to reward not only the ticket buyers, but the individuals who sold the winning tickets as well as the team that was able to sell the most. I really want to thank all of you for helping sell those tickets, as it makes a huge difference in the survival of our organization. Without the raffles, our recreational and competitive programs would not exist.

We also sold sponsorship opportunities to local businesses. Many local businesses took advantage of our banner sponsorship program and now have a large banner hanging on the fences by the fields, which will stay there for two years. Some even have their logo on top of our monthly newsletter and on the front page of our website. To those businesses, we say thank you very much! If anyone is interested in partaking in our banner sponsorship program, the details are here!

Finally, we were also very fortunate to be accepted into the Great Fish Community Challenge. We are so grateful to have been a part of such an amazing program put on by the Whitefish Community Foundation, and we not only want to thank them for their support but also we want to thank each and every one of those people who donated to our cause. We sincerely appreciate the support and are looking forward to using the funds to purchase new gear, better safety equipment, and contributing to our scholarship fund.

As you can see from the charts above, our registration fees only cover around 85-90% of our yearly expenses. Rather than raise registration fees, which we understand are already high, we need to fundraise to cover the difference. This is why we have the raffles, the banners, and the Great Fish Challenge. We are always looking not only for new ideas and ways to raise money and lessen the burden on families, but on volunteers to take charge of these projects and see them through. From pint nights to rummage sales to spaghetti feeds, if anyone has an idea and is willing to jump in and help keep this organization running, please let us know!

Please be aware that every member of our Rapids organization is tasked with fundraising! From our Board Members volunteering their time, to the families helping to sell Raffle tickets instead of pay increased fees, we are all in this together, and I want to thank each and every one of you for your dedication to this club!

Also, mark your calendars - Thursday, March 8th, 2018 - Pints with a Purpose at the Great Northern Brewery! Everyone is welcome to join the Rapids family for dinner, with $1 from every pint sold donated from the Brewery to the Rapids. Should be a great time!

Coaches –

I first of all want to thank each and every one of you who stepped up to coach this season. Our volunteer recreational coaches did an amazing job, and I am hopeful that next year we will be able to provide even more resources and support to make your job easier and more fun. Our competitive coaching staff is remarkable, as we have so much soccer knowledge and talent on our staff to give back to these players.

Moving forward our goal is to build the best coaching staff in Montana. We’d love to have a staff of head coaches and assistant coaches training to take over teams as our numbers expand. As I become more familiar with how best to provide resources, support, and training to our staff, I’d like to encourage anyone with soccer experience who might be interested in coaching to contact me and let me know your interest in assisting.

Board –

Our Board of Directors has undergone a rebirth over the past year as well – from rewriting our bylaws to solidifying a structure of committees and calendars, our board has the energy and drive to take this organization to the next level. As volunteers, our board does an amazing job of keeping this organization running, and it takes a huge amount of work to accomplish all tasks necessary to run 10 programs for over 1,500 players.

With each member of the Board of Directors belonging to committees with assigned responsibilities, tasks are much more easily accomplished. Members of the Board of Directors work together to organize everything from marketing our programs, distributing our uniforms, organizing our programs, managing all the gear and facilities, raising funds to keep us afloat, and managing the budgets to ensure stability and future success. These volunteers are the only reason this massive youth soccer club exists. If any of you would like to lend a hand and assist these board members with some of their projects, please let us know!

Here is a list of our current Board of Directors. If you see any of these people, give them a big thank you for all they do!














Staff members: Cynthia Benkelman, Club Administrator and Ryan Heflin, Executive Director

Future –

The Flathead Rapids, Flathead Force, and Flathead Valley United are coming together to provide an avenue for success within the MYSA league for years to come. Both Rapids and Force players will train using a similar curriculum at the younger ages, and when these groups come together at the truly competitive 11v11 age groups they will be more prepared to find success on the field personally and collectively. We are attempting to build the most competitive USYSA Club we can, and when all players and resources in the valley are combined to create these league teams, there is no limit to where we can go, how we can train, and how we can compete.

From learning the game in our Academy Micro and Recreational Programs, to training and playing with our Youth Competitive and Competitive teams, to moving into a valley-wide program to train with other players of similar ability that can provide a program for casual players to future D1 stars, the future is bright for soccer here in the valley. We will continue to strive to keep costs low and quality high. 

Thank you all so much for being a part of this growth. Please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, or concerns to info@flatheadrapids.com

Thank you, and Go Rapids and Go FVU!

Ryan Heflin, Executive Director