A Street for All Sports
It’s south Overland Park’s sports version of the Magnificent Mile, spanning from west of Antioch Road to Quivira Road on 135th Street. Any city would be delighted to have just one of these places. But to have the Blue Valley Recreation Complex, Overland Park Soccer Complex and the Fieldhouse of Kansas City a veritable base hit or a free throw away from each other is quite the athletic resource for adults, kids and parents.
Blue Valley Recreation Complex
Stacy Obringer-Valhall has coached a girls’ softball team at Blue Valley Recreation Complex every summer and fall since they were pre-kindergarteners. Those girls are all now in sixth grade.
“I have coached girls from several elementary schools,” says Obringer-Valhall, who played softball there herself for Blue Valley North High School, “and they met back up at Oxford Middle School and they remember each other from third-grade softball and walked in with a friend already, just from playing on the fields out there. They just meet so many kids. It’s a great opportunity for them.”
That generational linkage is distinctive with Blue Valley Recreation Complex, known as Miller’s Woods when it first opened in 1981. Take a survey and you’ll likely hear people still refer to the baseball and softball fields as Miller’s Woods. Blue Valley Rec took them over almost a quarter-century ago and made this property one of the premier bat-and-ball jewels in the Midwest.
Four more mint-conditioned fields that have been built on the north side brings the total to 24, with portable pitching mounds that are used for each.
“What really dictates what’s best to be played there is the outfield dimensions,” says Steve Baysinger, executive director of Blue Valley Rec. “At the north fields, there are 200-foot fences which would lead you to think softball, but for younger baseball players, 200 feet is ample room. So with those portable pitching mounds, we can use virtually all the fields for baseball or softball.”
Baysinger says they have around 5,500 youth playing baseball and softball at the complex, while 5,000 more participate in the popular adult softball leagues. With covered pavilions to give people some shade from the summer sizzle, convenient food and beverage for all the fields and the capability of holding big events, the complex is reaping the benefits. For the last four years, the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) softball tournament has been contested there, as Emporia State won the MIAA championship in April for the eighth time in nine years. And with the games and instructional clinics that week, it’s a great partnership.
“That tournament’s going on at a timeframe when our season hasn’t hit full throttle, so we’re able to use the complex and accommodate that play there without inconveniencing or mixing up the schedule for our league play,” Baysinger says. “It’s got positives on a lot of fronts.”
And there are manifold positives for Obringer-Valhall’s family. She says it’s special that her son and daughter play out there too at a place where she grew up playing and where she loves coaching. “You cannot describe the feeling,” she says, “to know that those fields are still there and that you’re making a difference for a whole new generation of girls.”
Overland Park Soccer Complex
When Mike Gonzales flew out from Maryland on a house-hunting trip to Overland Park in 2008, he scoured the area for places that would be best suited for his three now-teenage soccer-playing girls: Taylor, 16; Casey, 14; and Kolbi, 13. During his visit, earthmovers were getting started on what would be the Overland Park Soccer Complex. As he learned more about it, well, decisions don’t get less complicated. They purchased their home just a few minutes from one of the finest soccer facilities in the United States, which cut the proverbial ribbon in 2009.
The Overland Park Soccer Complex is unique from any other soccer venue, with 12 lighted fields that are all synthetic turf. Complex manager Mike LaPlante says it’s the only site in the nation with this many synthetic soccer fields in one location. Although there are some soccer purists who undoubtedly swear by grass, the artificial surface that many college and professional football fields use allows for a huge reduction in cancellations, so that games can be played in rainy conditions.
The Gonzales sisters are with the Sporting Blue Valley soccer club, which trains at the complex, and they may play upwards of 60 to 70 games a year combined over there. In one common scenario, Gonzales can watch one daughter’s game while his wife attends another.
“The nice thing is with having three girls and 12 fields there, generally speaking they’re fairly close by so we can get to them all,” he says. “So we just kind of divide and conquer.”
Its 16,000-square-foot fieldhouse is a structure where you can gather and take shelter from severe weather, and where referees have their own space to get prepared for games. The three Corner Kick Café concessions, and fields that can handle the traffic, fill out an amenities tally that US Youth Soccer likes. For the second time, the US Youth Soccer National Championships will be staged at the Overland Park Soccer Complex in July 2013. The influence of the complex on the sport is near-instantaneous.
“It’s proven to other areas out there around the country that something like this is possible and do-able,” LaPlante says. “Everybody talks about doing it. We talk to people all the time that are gathering information, but it’s easy to put together a plan and have a location and not have the money, or have the money but not have the plan and the location. So there’s always some hurdle in there. But I think what we’ve done is we’ve established Kansas City, to the credit of the youth soccer component of the metropolitan area, but also to Sporting KC and the success they’ve had, that you’ve been able to mesh those two and create this soccer community that’s not only heavily supported, but is passionate about a game that is really on the upswing.”
And the word keeps spreading.
“You get to meet so many families from across the United States: coaches, kids and families that can’t wait to come to this place,” Gonzales says. “Because whether they’re coming from South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas or Oklahoma, they don’t have places like this. So the reputation has gotten out there that Overland Park Soccer Complex is where you want to go.”
The Fieldhouse of Kansas City
The official grand opening wasn’t until October, but for kids with hoop dreams, the Fieldhouse of Kansas City asserted itself as first-rate during the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) summer circuits.
Teams that are sponsored by LeBron James in Ohio (King James Shooting Stars) and former Michigan Fab Fiver Ray Jackson in Texas (Ray Jackson’s Rising Stars) competed in the Hardwood Classic at the Fieldhouse.
A gaggle of college coaching glitterati was out recruiting, with head coaches like Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, Oregon’s Dana Altman, Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger and Kansas assistant Norm Roberts evaluating players. MO-KAN Elite, a team with Blue Valley Northwest’s Clayton Custer and Duke signee Semi Ojeleye from Ottawa, won the under-17 division of the tournament.
The Fieldhouse took possession of the building that was formerly Pepsi Ice Midwest in May, and they’re already putting on tournaments of this quality in July? That’s quick. Fact is, the place is arranged perfectly for tournament play and can seat up to 1,400 people. Of the eight court possibilities, divided into two gyms, six are full high school regulation courts and then two are NBA and college regulation courts. In total, the Fieldhouse will offer 24 basketball tournaments a year, and they also have one of the largest club programs in the area with 36 teams.
Apart from those events, sessions of skills classes taught by Jamel James, who previously worked as a trainer in the NBA’s Developmental League, are available to make kids more well-rounded players. There’s an emphasis on performance training with a second-floor fitness area, where the Fieldhouse has equipment for TRX and Kinesis as well as Vertimax boards that can help with a player’s vertical.
“Our program is more of a developmental program. We want to make sure we’re bringing in everybody that can take part in a session with us, they can do some training with us upstairs, and we develop those players,” says general manager Travis Crafton. “There are some things that the small programs just absolutely can’t do, as far as their speed, agility and strength training. We’re able to do it for them, and then they’re able to get that training from us and then be able to go back to their respective teams.”
Partnering up with Performance Volleyball Academy is another asset, since the Fieldhouse can be converted into nine volleyball courts. When youth volleyball and basketball leagues aren’t on the crowded calendar, there are adult leagues for those who still think they can cross-over dribble Tim Hardaway-style.
And can you say more AAU championships in Overland Park?
“I think it’s very likely,” Crafton says. “You’ve got the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce behind it. They’re very interested in working with us and helping us get some of those bigger-level tournaments in, so I think it’s very likely that we see a big event come here pretty soon.”