When the Union Wildcat Soccer Camp made its debut in 1998, it was the only venue of its kind in town.
From Weber Field to Biertuempfel Park to Rabkin Park, the camp is still going strong with two week-long sessions in July marking the 20th anniversary.
“The reason I started this camp was because my players were going to a Scotch Plains camp and we needed to keep the kids in town,” said camp director Larry Petras. “That’s how the Wildcat Soccer Camp was born.”
Petras, the middle school coach in Union since 1993 and Jeremy Cohen have been camp directors since year one.
“What I’m most proud about is how many of the players who went through the camp are now coaches of the camp,” said Petras, a 1980 Union High School graduate. “They embrace the whole mission of the camp, which is sportsmanship and the fostering of growth of soccer in Union.”
This summer’s sessions at Rabkin Park are the second and third weeks in July – July 10-14 and 17-21.
“When Larry and I started the camp there were zero soccer camps in Union,” said Cohen, a 1992 UHS grad. “We were teachers and knew the kids and wanted to provide a place for them to come and play during the summer.”
George Chapla, Union Class of 1968 and one of the best players to compete for Jim Jeskey during his early years as Union’s varsity coach, was also there in the beginning as a camp counselor.
“We have Union kids who want to make the generation of Union soccer great,” Petras said.
Former UHS soccer players that served as camp counselors included Trevor Gallucci, Kate Reiter and Miguel Da Silva. Reiter went on to play all for years in college at Stockton State.
“Our camp is different,” Petras said. “There is definitely one-on-one and the coaches know all the kids names. We were small and never outgrew our connections to the kids.”
Petras was from the middle school, Chapla from the hig school and Cohen, who played collegiately at Seton Hall, was hired to take Petras’ classroom position. Cohen is now the math department chairman for middle school and high school in Union.
“The most logical way to succeed was to keep the palyers playing together longer,” Petras said.
Petras has had only three sub-.500 seasons as middle school coach the past 24 seasons.
“Making soccer fun is a really big part of the camp,” Petras said.
UNION WILDCAT SOCCER CAMP 2017
Full-Day and Half-Day options
July 10 – 14
July 17 – 21
at Rabkin Park
For Boys & Girls Ages 6-15
Cub Camp for Boys & Girls ages 4-6
Camp Directors: Larry Petras, Jeremy Cohen
Reiter was first a camper before she became a counselor.
She remembers being a camper the very first camp in 1998.
“It was fun, but there was discipline,” said Reiter, a 2006 UHS grad. “My first day was a half day and I remember that I wanted to then take part in the full day.
“I then came back, every week and every year.”
Reiter will be entering her fifth year as a middle school coach in Winslow.
Petras coached both of Reiter’s brothers, Jared, UHS Class of 2003, and Jordan, UHS Class of 2007.
“This was one of the best camps I ever went to,” Reiter said. “I remember looking forward to lunch time and competing with the counselors and then as a counselor competing with the kids.
“Many of the activities from the camp I use as part of my middle school practices.
“There was your usual focus on skills such as dribble, pass and shoot. They helped me and other kids to hone our skills and they helped us in game situations.
“The biggest thing for me was that the camp made the sport fun. I looked forward to going to the camp from the very beginning.
“I then joined track to be in shape so I could work even harder.”
Cohen continued: “With Larry and myself also being teachers in the classroom, we set up situations for the kids to engage in so they would have to figure out exactly what we are trying to teach them.
“For the kids it’s playing and learning through situations we put them in. Larry and I are really collaborators.
“We have Wacky Wednesdays for the kids to have fun. The camp has never been militant. It’s been for the enjoyment and the passion of the sport.
“For me, soccer was more than a sport. It taught me the value of hard work and working with other people.
“Soccer is still soccer and the objective is to still outscore your opponent – the nature of the game is the same.
“You still need to dribble, pass and shoot. Those tactics have evolved and we present it as sort of a puzzle for the kids to solve and have fun with.”