Kickoff to summer

Josh VanDyke • Jun 22, 2018 at 12:30 AM

Sandwiched between the end of the school year and Fourth of July festivities, the now decade-old Soccer in the Sand tournament that hits the Grand Haven beachfront each June has become the sounding salvo to kick off an eventful summer of activities that span across the Lakeshore.

The three-day tournament features a condensed playing field for 5-on-5 beach soccer contests that are played in the sand with goalkeepers patrolling the nets. In short order, the Grand Haven-hosted event has become the pride and joy of the Nationwide Beach Soccer Series. The West Michigan edition outdraws similar tournaments in large cities such as Chicago, San Diego and New York every year, and this year appears to be no exception.

"We have more than 400 teams signed up this year, so that number just continues to climb with each installment," said event founder Chris Lemay. "We expect 15-20,000 people each day, so it's going to be a big event and it should a lot of fun."

With flocks of soccer enthusiasts traveling to a centralized location, parking and travel can often become meddlesome. That particular issue should be made easier this year, however, as completed road construction will make the path to and from the event much less stressful.

"The last two years, the biggest challenge has been construction on the main streets," added Lemay. "The Harbor Transit has really helped us out a lot, and with that construction finalized, it should be a lot more seamless this year."

A weekend partnership with the Harbor Transit will help beachgoers with $1 per person rides to the beach from city parking areas.

"We've talked with the Grand Haven State Park people and city officials about the traffic concerns that might come out of this," Lemay added. "If you aren't in the area by 8:30-9 a.m. then you should probably just plan on using one of our designated park-and-ride lots throughout the city."

Lemay believes the downtown area of Grand Haven combined with the beach atmosphere makes it a prime spot for the event.

"A lot of people who aren't from Grand Haven originally that visit for the tournament are blown away by the downtown scene," he added. "They can play soccer on the beach during the day and then walk downtown and enjoy everything Grand Haven has to offer."

After vacationing in Grand Haven for a few summers growing up, Lemay and his brother, Scott, decided to try and make one of their tournament series stops a summer destination.

"I grew up on the East side of the state, but my family would always come out to Grand Haven during the summer," he recalled. "After college, I was out in the San Diego area coaching soccer and we initially started the Nationwide Series out there. We knew at some point we wanted to try and bring the tournament to the midwest and Grand Haven just made too much sense.

"From kicking around a soccer ball with my friends as a kid to seeing what the event has become now is pretty special."

That youthful exuberance is on full display in this year's tournament field as the highest influx in teams is at the youth level.

"I think our biggest groups are the U12, 13 and 14s," he added. "The Lakeshore has a strong passion for soccer and that's proof by how many young kids are coming out to this event in droves. The cool thing about this tournament being a decade old now is that we see adults that started off playing in this tournament as teenagers and now they're coming back and playing in the men's and women's open groups.

"It's become a tradition and part of people's summer plans every June."

The weekend block party begins today with a free youth soccer clinic from 6-7 p.m. at the Grand Haven State Beach. Following the instructional session, the men's pro-am division will play their opening round games in what should be a competitive field once again.

"We'll kick off with some men's pro-am adult leagues on Friday and that should be pretty entertaining," Lemay said. "Great Lakes Beach Soccer finished runner-up at the Virginia Beach tournament earlier this month, which is one of the biggest tournaments in the country. It's a North American Sand Soccer Championships event and they actually knocked off the USA national team in that tournament, too.

"They are all local guys, and they are always excited to participate in this local tournament. Fresh Water BSC won the tournament last year, so it'll be interesting if those two teams run into each other again."

Great Lakes Beach Soccer will face GR Unite at 7 p.m. at Stadium A, while Fresh Water BSC will take on Latin Fury at 7 p.m. at Stadium B.

Saturday's action begins at 8:30 a.m. at various designated fields across the beach. Visit www.soccerinthesand.com/nationwide-beach-soccer-series/grand-haven-michigan for more details, including schedules, field maps and designated parking lots.

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