By STEPHEN MCKAY

Sun Correspondent

Sports, by their very nature, are competitive. For the young, sports have an even higher calling.

For parents who have involved their children in local i9 Sports programs, their goal is not necessarily to propel them on to major league sports. Instead, i9 provides a healthy atmosphere for participants to learn the fundamentals of a variety of sports, while also learning important life lessons.

“Our mission is to help kids succeed in life through sports,” said South Sarasota i9 Program Director Jenna Berquist. “Nowadays, kids seem to spend so much time on electronic devices. So, it’s really important to get them into activities that help teach them about sportsmanship and team building.”

This past Saturday at the Sarasota Baptist Church gymnasium, the theme of the day was, “Teamwork.”

“It’s definitely a great place to start kids out,” said i9 basketball coach Ryan Heine. “This also helps kids who are looking to advance in sports. And the skills they learn here will help them down the road to make their middle or high school teams.”

i9 Sports is the nation’s largest youth sports league business in the country. Over two million children from Florida to Hawaii are registered with i9. Locally, the programs are offered on Saturdays and are divided by age group and skill level.

Larry and Angie Jackson own several i9 franchises near Venice, including one that operates out of Wellfield Park in Venice. The Jackson’s have other franchises in North Port, Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch and Bradenton.

Each program offers a wide variety of sports designed for children aged 3-15+. There are several offerings broken down into seasons. While there are some differences within each franchise, most offer soccer, flag football, baseball instructional programs, basketball and cheerleading.

Among the dozens of children who showed up to participate this past Saturday in Sarasota, four of them were from the Leylo family. Four of five of the Leylo children are active in i9, while a 2-year-old daughter waits in the wings.

“Jonah (the oldest) took to sports naturally and he got involved about three or four years ago,” said Tom Leylo. “The best thing about i9 is they get to play with other kids and also to help other kids.”

Tom Leylo, a former college soccer player, also coaches i9 soccer. Since his children began playing when they were very young, they are more advanced that most of the other children. But they fit in seamlessly with those just learning the game.

The Venice program at Wellfield Park operates for three seasons from September through May. During the heat of the summer, other venues offer indoor sports. The South Sarasota franchise at Sarasota Baptist Church offers four seasons. During the summer, the program goes indoors for basketball, soccer and cheerleading.

“Our son Bradley loves sports and he wakes up early on Saturday looking forward to coming here,” said Tricia Muecke of Venice. “Here, they learn the different skills. But they also learn about sportsmanship and team work.

“We also love the fact that parents aren’t allowed to curse or yell at anyone. Of course, we cheer a lot, but we don’t get involved with what’s happening out on the court.”

Like millions of others, 8-year-old Albert Fung’s passion for soccer was ignited by his exposure to the “Captain Tsubasa,” animated television show.

“Albert started playing soccer when he was very young but then stopped for a while,” explained his mother, Monica Fung. “But, when we spent about six months in Tokyo recently, his interest was rekindled through Captain Tsubasa.

“So, when we came back to Sarasota, we signed him up for i9. It’s a great program and he just loves it.”

Albert was most conspicuous when he was hit square in the solar plexus while playing defense.

“Oh, I’m fine. It was nothing,” Albert said. “It’s fun here. I don’t know why, but I just love playing soccer.”

That kind of a response is music to Berquist’s ears.

“Beyond having fun and being safe, we’re going to teach kids to play the game properly — on and off the field,” she said. “That’s why we teach life skills, too. We value sportsmanship very highly here.”

Anyone interested in learning more about local i9 programs can visit the national website at www.i9sports.com. By typing in a zip code, a list of nearby i9 programs will appear. The listing is complete with sports offerings, sites and contact information.

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