JANESVILLE is often referred to as a baseball or football town.
That could be changing, though, as Rock Soccer Club’s continued expansion and prosperity might force the beautiful game to be included in the discussion sooner rather than later.
The club turned 10 years old in 2016, and it reached another milestone Saturday when its U17 Gold girls team secured a berth at the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association state tournament.
It’s the first time a Rock Soccer team has advanced to the state championships. The U17 roster consists of 17 players from across Rock County—13 from Janesville, two from Milton, and one apiece from Beloit and Clinton.
The Gold team is a microcosm of Rock Soccer as a whole: a rising soccer power that promotes and nourishes the sport, while bringing together athletes from different communities and backgrounds.
“That team is really what we want to strive for throughout the club,” said U17 Gold coach Mike Hook, also Rock Soccer’s coaching director. “There’s a lot of good soccer going on around Janesville. If we can combine our pool of talent together, we can be something special. That’s always been my vision for where the club can go in the future.”
Four different players scored in Rock Soccer’s 5-1 win over Madison FC on Saturday at the Janesville Youth Sports Complex. The core of the Gold team has played together since the club was founded in 2006.
“I’ve always played soccer, and it’s where I met all my friends. I’ve been playing with these girls since I was whatever, 5, 6 years old,” said Brooke Parkhurst, a Craig High sophomore who’s grown up with Rock Soccer. “I just love the game.”
The Gold team has become Rock Soccer’s gold standard. The hope is that more teams rise to that level as the club keeps expanding. Rock Soccer has 450 athletes enrolled this fall; just seven years ago, in 2010, there were 150 players.
“Soccer is a growing sport here in southern Wisconsin,” Rock Soccer president Nick Huber said. “We’ve had consistent growth year over year.”
A tight-knit community is being cultivated locally as interest in soccer continues to grow.
“We’re really blessed within our club to have very supportive families,” said Huber, who has a personal stake in the club besides serving as its president. He has three sons playing for Rock Soccer, twins at the U14 level and another at U12.
“The most important thing are the people that are a part of it. And not just good people, but a lot of good people,” Hook said. “I think this club has come a massive distance, even in just the past few years, of turning into a competitive club.”
Rock Soccer Club, in its current form, was forged in 2006 when two rival organizations, Janesville United and Rock Soccer Federation, merged. Club vice president Jeff Wunn has been around since the beginning.
“Janesville in itself is really a baseball/football community. I came to Janesville in 1983. As my kids grew up in the club, it gave me and my family a chance to play the sport,” Wunn said. “When I moved here and started a family, I was looking for a chance to introduce my kids to the game.
“I think the popularity of soccer in general is certainly helping the club. I think that is helping to foster more and more interest in soccer.”
A place for every player
Rock Soccer Club prides itself on inclusivity and community-building, and those were the primary reasons Azucena Ceballos enrolled her two sons, Noel and Hozai.
“They always felt comfortable with the coaches,” Ceballos said. “As a parent, I always felt that’s why my boys like it. They never felt stressed about how they had to play.”
And the two brothers blossomed while playing for Rock Soccer. Both went on to play for Craig High School. Hozai scored 53 goals at Craig, a school record, and is currently a sophomore on the UW-Whitewater men’s soccer team.
“Rock Soccer did prepare them for Craig soccer. Having Rock Soccer here, other kids that live in Janesville that like soccer, they have the opportunity to play. Kids make a bond. Once they got to Craig, they already knew each other and how they each play,” Azucena Ceballos said. “They grew up together.”
While Rock Soccer’s competitive programs continue to expand and produce high-caliber players, the club provides a place for everyone. There are multiple teams at each age level, opening up playing time for all athletes, regardless of ability.
“From a club perspective, we try to keep a good balance between competitiveness and making sure it’s enjoyable,” Huber said. “It’s not about feeding them to the next level. It’s really about developing their skills and teamwork ability within the club.”
“We’re really trying to develop young leaders.”
The club works to create a fun, energetic environment for players in its Little Kickers and youth programs, hopefully leading to long-term commitments to the sport. Tactics are put to the side, with training focused on getting players as much on-ball experience as possible.
The Little Kickers program, for 3-5 year olds, is an easy way for families to get familiar with the club and the sport. The free program is offered every fall and spring.
“It really starts at a grassroots level. Our Little Kickers program is really where we have a fun outing, introduce them to the sport,” Wunn said. “We slowly grow up into our academy program. We made a conscious decision a few years ago, that once they made U12 we wanted our kids to play at a competitive level.”
“Our goal is to have kids really enjoy the sport, and really enjoy it through their childhood,” Huber said. “We don’t want them to burn out. Just to maintain access to anyone that’s interested in soccer.”
Big plans on the horizon
So, what does the future hold for Rock Soccer Club?
Hook, who took over the coaching director position last summer, has big plans, especially for the club’s competitive teams. He hopes Rock Soccer can become a state power, competing on the same footing as clubs in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay.
“I want to have Rock Soccer striving to be in that conversation of big clubs. We have the space, we have the amount of people, and we can pull from a lot of different communities,” Hook said.
The U17 Gold team opens state tournament group play on Oct. 14 in Milwaukee. If state trips and league titles become the norm for Rock Soccer teams, Hook said the club could potentially look beyond Wisconsin’s borders for opponents.
That could mean competing in the Midwest Regional League, which includes teams from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, and Nebraska.
Still, that would be years down the road. There’s plenty of work to be done locally.
Rock Soccer Club’s teams currently compete in leagues under the umbrella of Madison Area Youth Soccer, with the exception of the U17 Gold girls, which has competed in the Girls State League each of the past two years.
“My goal has been, across the board, to advance the levels all around us. If you’re winning that league, there’s an opportunity to move to a harder league,” he said.
Bryan Wegter is a sports reporter/page designer at The Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org