YOUNGSTOWN — Traditions run deep in Western New York. The Niagara Pioneer Soccer League tournament is no different.
Since 1972, the tournament has been a staple in Niagara County, bringing thousands to WNY for a weekend of intense action on the pitch. This year was no different; with an estimated 10,000 people in Fort Niagara State Park each day, this tournament continues to be one of the biggest, most well-oiled machines every summer.
There were 264 games all together, which were played on 20 fields. With 164 teams in play this year, including a perfect split of 82 boys teams and 82 girls teams, there were roughly 2,500 players in total. The teams spanned from under 9 to under 19 and were from locations like New Jersey, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Toronto and even Quebec.
There were 22 travel teams, around 50 WNY teams, 50 Rochester teams and nearly 30 teams from Canada. It is believed that the total revenue generated for the area is around $1 million for the entire weekend.
Tournament Director Chris Woods was pleased to see how the weekend played out, stating that win or lose, teams seemed "happy to be here."
"It's great ... having everything here at one location, where multiple clubs with multiple teams could all get together and hang out as a part of the experience," Woods said. "It's such an easy sell for us to get teams to come. We have great local and regional competition with it and it's an overall just great event that we get to have here."
Woods has come full circle with the NPSL tournament. Woods played in the event as a kid and coached his son's U10 NPSL Renegades this weekend. H mother, Maryanne, was a big piece in the event years ago — over a 15-year span, she was on the board of directors and served as treasurer, director and president of the tournament.
"I feel that I owe it to (her)," Woods said. "I got so much out of Niagara Pioneer growing up as a kid that, I feel obligation is the wrong word, but I feel a sense of duty to make sure to give back to the community that gave me so much as a kid."
Tournament President Gary Rose has been involved with every tournament in NPSL history. He said the event has "grown tenfold" over time, which he believes is attributed to just how year round the sport has become today.
"The tournament has been fantastic," Rose said. "The longevity, having all of our fields in one facility is fantastic for the players, the parents and the all the family that comes along with this long weekend. I can't thank Fort Niagara (enough) for their maintenance with the weather conditions we've had over the last two months (because) it's been atrocious with the rain and kudos to the park on bringing the fields and grounds together to kick off this tournament."
Rose plans to retire from his position as the event's president, leaving many duties for Woods to pick up in his absence. Rose feels very assured that Woods will do an admirable job once he is gone.
"The tournament's in good hands. Chris Woods has been the tournament director for numerous years," Rose said. "He's got his arms around it. ... (I) couldn't leave it in better hands. As you see this weekend, it's gone off without any flaws whatsoever."
One other coach whose tournament history has come full circle is Cody Culp, coach of the Ohio River Renegades in the U19 boys division. The East Liverpool, Ohio native was once a competitor in the tournament as a kid. Culp is in the first year of this program and notably had a coed roster playing in the tournament.
"It feels good to be able to pass the event and the experience on to somebody else," Culp said. "I came here when I was 11, which was 17 years ago. So to be able to give somebody else the same experience I had and the joy of coming to some place new (like) Niagara Falls ... (to) give them the experience to play in a different atmosphere, a different play style ... and give those kids an opportunity to experience something that (they) might not ever get to experience in their life, that's incredible."
Several local teams came out on top, including the U12 boys/white Niagara Falls Soccer Club Titans and the U13 girls Niagara United, Iron Will. The NPSL had four winners, the Niagara Pioneer Soccer League Cheetahs (U17/19 girls), Niagara Pioneer Rangers (U19 boys), Niagara Pioneer 02 (U17 boys) and Niagara Pioneer Express (U14 boys/green). The U19 teams caught many eyes during the weekend, due to the fact that both teams featured many of Lewiston-Porter's Section VI Class A-2 champion boys and girls soccer players from 2018.
The Cheetahs' Sierra Wilson scored the championship game's lone goal, securing the U17/19 girls title in a heated 1-0 battle with West Genesee FC. Wilson was thrilled to win one last game with some of her high school teammates before she returns to the Alfred University soccer team in the fall.
"It feels great. I played with these girls in high school and we came out the same way we used to play and we won," Wilson said. "I don't even know what words to say. It's my last tournament with them so it's a good way to go out.
"... It really just clicked, like we were playing back in the fall. There's really nothing (else) to it. We're all a bunch of sisters and family, so it worked."
The Niagara Pioneer Rangers pulled out a narrow 1-0 championship victory too, netting the result after Jake Westadt assisted on Zack Clayborne's goal in the final minutes of the game. William Quarantello was a member of the boys sectional championship team last fall and like Wilson, he was excited to playing with his high school teammates once again.
"(It was) the last opportunity we had for half the team," Quarantello said. "Somewhere there was a split, a couple years back. But the majority of the team can't be playing next year (and) this is our last shot to do it and we did it. (We) got the job done. ... It means the world (to come out here with my teammates). We're doing it for each other."