by Matt Riley
On Saturday, June 29, and Sunday, June 30, the Niagara Pioneer Soccer League will host the Northern Customs Services' 29th annual Niagara Pioneer International Soccer Tournament.
Tournament director Jeff Gee describes the tournament as, "The largest and the longest-running youth sporting event in Niagara County." The tournament will take place in Fort Niagara State Park in Youngstown. The 20 soccer fields in the park are expected to host 156 teams over the weekend. With up to 20 players on a team, Gee expects approximately 3,000 players to attend. In addition, there will be 120 referees and numerous parents, siblings, friends and spectators, for an expected total of more than 5,000 in attendance.
Ranging in age from 9 to 19, players travel from all over western and central New York, eastern and western Pennsylvania, the Cleveland area and as far north as Toronto for the tournament. Gee, who has been tournament director for the past five years, commented, "We've been pretty much at capacity for the last three years. We'd like to continue that and we should be able to."
The tournament will begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday with bracket play going until 8 p.m. and finishing between 8 a.m. and noon on Sunday. The championship round begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, with the whole tournament wrapping up at 5 p.m. By Sunday evening, young soccer players will have played 252 games.
"It's a very unique facility, there's no other facility like it in western or central New York with regard to its size and capability to host an event like this. Twenty soccer fields is a lot of space and we're very lucky to have this space available to us," said Gee of the Fort Niagara State Park complex.
With such a large influx of people to the Niagara Region, the tournament has a large impact on the local economy. Gee expects participants and their families to fill more than 1,000 hotel rooms, and bring about $1 million in revenue to the area. Lewiston restaurant The Silo will cater the tournament, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. "We get great community support, really. And the reason is because we've been around for so long. The thing is, for Lewiston-based businesses, their kids are involved with our soccer program," said Gee. He added, "It's been absolutely fantastic dealing with our locally-based businesses, I can't thank them enough."
Gee explained that local businesses provide support for the tournament, which volunteers run, as the Niagara Pioneer Soccer League is a not-for-profit organization. "We all do this as volunteers. Not one of us puts anything in our pocket for it. We all do it for the love of the game and the love of our young athletes," said Gee.
Lewiston-based company Niagara Customs Services is sponsoring this year's event. The company specializes in international laws and regulations to expedite commerce over the border between America and Canada. Co-owner Bill Westadt played in the soccer league as a child. "It's come full circle for him with his kids now playing in our program. That guy is just ecstatic to be able to give back a little bit into the program and help us out," said Gee.
In addition to being a massive event and destination, the tournament also serves to provide funding for the NPSL. The not-for-profit league has been around for 40 years and now includes 800 young soccer players every year. Travel and house leagues provide an environment, "to foster the development of youth soccer in the Niagara River region of Western New York," with focus on fair play, teamwork and sportsmanship, said Gee.
With the event consistently filling every soccer field at the park, the tournament continues to be a success. "We put this on every year and people continue to come back. It's a great facility. It's quite the scene down there at noon on a Saturday afternoon when all 3,000 athletes are down there in the park," said Gee.
For more information, visit www.niagarapioneer.com.