The Dream Team…

- August 16, 2021 -

WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton

Nick Leduc and a dozen boys met for the first time in May 2018 at tryouts for the 11 and under team that Leduc would be coaching for the Braden River Soccer Club. They couldn’t know then that in two-and-a-half years, they would rank number one in Florida.

Still, from the beginning, Leduc had a feeling this team would be special.

“I knew we had something,” Leduc said. “Once we put them on the field, we knew we had something. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime team.”

For the most part, the boys on Leduc’s team played with each other over three seasons by the time this past season ended on Memorial Day weekend, after a tournament in Williamsburg, VA. Three years gave the boys time to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how they each play the game. But that’s only part of why this team’s been so successful.

“They’re very fast,” Leduc said, adding that every coach they played against this year mentioned the team’s collective speed. “Their running and their speed reacting to the game was at times shocking.”

Leduc also said the boys, who in May were either 10 or 11 years old, are exceptionally hard-working.

“They’re gritty,” he said. “They don’t give up. There is not an ounce of ‘give-up’ in any of them.”

Also, they’re passionate.

“I want to play soccer for my life, as a living,” said Adriel Clas, 11, who played for ‘Coach Nick’ for three years. Adriel wants to play in college and ultimately play professionally.

Prior to his parents signing him up for the soccer club for his eighth birthday in 2018, Adriel played soccer every day at recess. At every P.E. class, he would go “straight to the nets,” he said. “What I like about soccer is the way it’s played,” Adriel said. “It’s a ball at your feet and a net, and you have to figure out how to get the ball in the net. It’s like a puzzle.”

Adriel said soccer is his passion. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said, joy apparent on his face. “I just love soccer.” Gavin Petricca, 10, feels the same. The youngest player on the team, Petricca, said he likes to watch and study famous players on YouTube. “I just keep thinking, if I keep dedicating myself, I can be like one of them,” he said.

Speed, Grit, and Passion

When it comes to the collective talent of Leduc’s team, the numbers speak for themselves. This past season, the team had 44 wins, eight losses, and eight ties. They scored more than 200 goals, and they won six of the ten tournaments they attended.

For five weeks in November and December of 2020, the team ranked first in Florida out of 250 teams of kids ages 11 and under. By the end of this season, the team ended up ranking seventh in the state and in the top 50 in the U.S.

“We snuck up on Florida,” Leduc said. “We came out of nowhere.”

Also, to be part of the team, the boys had to make a nine-month commitment, from September to May, with practices at least twice a week, for two hours each time.

Leduc also noted that usually, an 11 and under team would attend just six or seven tournaments. But because Leduc feared that Florida Youth Soccer was going to shut down due to COVID-19, he wanted to squeeze in as many chances for the boys to play as possible. Luckily, the shutdown never happened.

In addition, tournaments for 11 and under teams are generally held within an hour-and-a-half drive, but this year, the team spent several weekends in Miami, where there was stiff competition. Kids this age generally play 50 percent of their games at home, while this year, it was more like 25 percent, Leduc said. “This team was going to be different no matter what,” he said.

The end of this season marked the end of Leduc’s three-year-stint coaching this team. He’s glad to see the boys move up to the next level.

“Soccer is like a Rubik’s Cube,” Leduc said. “There’s more than one way to solve it. Players need another point of view. They are very good and going to be even better.”

Still, on a personal level, it’s heartbreaking. “It’s almost like losing my 12 best friends,” Leduc said.

A Trifecta of Friendships

The friendship between Leduc and the boys, Leduc and the boys’ parents, and between the boys themselves is also part of why the team is so special.

“It’s a trifecta: great coach, great group of parents, great group of boys,” said Paula Antista, mom to Wesley, 10. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Over the past three years, Antista has witnessed Wesley, who plays defense, form a tight bond with his teammates. “These are his best friends,” Antista said.

Wesley makes that clear when he was asked what he likes most about playing on the team. “Making good passes and creating chances for my friends to score,” he said.

Leduc also noted how tight-knit the boys have become, especially considering that they attend ten different elementary schools.

“They’re inseparable,” Leduc said. “I could call one, and there will be six or seven of them together right now. With that closeness comes the desire to work with and for each other.”

As for the parents, Leduc describes them as “awesome.”

One such parent is Sandy Vansant, mom to Henley, 11. Vansant said Leduc is the perfect coach for boys her son’s age. “He’s loving, personable, and really nurtures them,” Vansant said of Leduc. “He’s also very competitive, which is great. It’s been a phenomenal experience with him.”

Her son feels the same. “He works us hard,” said Henley, the team’s goalie. “He’s fun and funny. He focuses on teamwork. It’s like family.”

According to Chris Campbell, Dad to Chaz, 11, Leduc is more than just a coach to the team. He makes time to attend their birthday parties and other get-togethers off the field.

“The kids have massive respect for him,” Campbell said of Leduc, whom he knows well, since Leduc also coached his older son Caden, now 13, for three years.

“He’s awesome,” said Chaz of his coach. “He coaches us perfectly, and he does whatever he can to make us as good as all-stars.” According to Chaz, there is no one best player on the team. “We contribute, each and every one of us,” Chaz said. “We play as a team.”

Also, since the teammates are such good friends and spend time together off the field, it makes playing together more fun, Chaz said. “We trust and know each other,” he said.

Chaz prefers playing defense; he said, “because I like to help my team.”

“I’m really fast,” he added. “I can catch up to people, but if I don’t, my teammates have my back.” His Dad noted that Chaz loves watching professional soccer on T.V. “He knows all the players,” Campbell said. “He’s just a fan, through and through.”

A Terrific Teacher

Leduc, 48, teaches fourth grade at Barbara A. Harvey Elementary in Parrish. He’s been teaching in Manatee County schools for 26 years, and he won Manatee County Educator of the Year in 2016-2017.

As a kid, Leduc played soccer up through high school at Manatee High School. He played on an intramural team at the University of Florida, where he took pre-med courses, planning on becoming a doctor. However, a summer job as a camp counselor at G.T. Bray Park changed all that. He discovered he had a passion for working with kids.

“I love what I do,” Leduc said.

Leduc has coached for the nonprofit Braden River Soccer Club for 12 years. He enjoys coaching soccer, he said, because he gets to constantly present his players with problems and help them solve the problems quickly as a team. He’s taught the boys to rely on each other, take responsibility for the team, and he’s also taught them how to deal with heartache and losses.

“My goal is to create boys who love the game as I love it,” Leduc said. “The game should always, always, always be fun. I want it to be a very positive experience. I want them to know that I love them dearly.”

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