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Soccer balls will start popping up across town any day now. You know the ones: painted tin cutouts pointing the way to J. Burt Gillette Athletic Complex.
Before the 2018 ends, hundreds of soccer teams and thousands of players and supporters will come to town for tournaments, spend a day or maybe a weekend in Wilson — playing soccer, eating meals, perhaps spending the night in a hotel.
Soccer has turned into a lucrative business in Wilson since Gillette opened in 2005. In fact, the 2016 soccer season brought an estimated $3.5 million to Wilson, said Richard Frazier, recreation manger for the city of Wilson.
On those soccer fields March 9-10, one of the biggest soccer events of the year — The Brittany — will kick off the soccer season.
The Brittany Willis Memorial Scholarship Soccer Showcase alone brings in 84 teams and 1,300 players from across the state with around 3,000 spectators, Frazier said, as well as $216,000 for the two-day event. As many as 90 hotel rooms will be filled for the event that honors the memory of Brittany Willis, a Hunt High School graduate and captain of the school’s soccer team, who was kidnapped from a local shopping center, raped and killed in 2004.
The showcase is a way to honor Willis’ memory and celebrate her life as well as raise funds for annual scholarships given in Willis’ honor to local high school seniors.
In addition to playing soccer, the girls who come to the showcase hear comments from a volunteer who tells Willis’ story and gives information on safety and self-protection.
Susan Thomas has been on The Brittany board from the beginning. She makes it a point to greet as many busloads of girls as she can as they arrive at Gillette. She likes to welcome the teams to Wilson and thank them for participating and keeping Brittany’s memory alive.
Thomas’ daughter was in Girl Scouts with Brittany, and she taught with her mother, Judy Willis. She shares that personal connection with the athletes as well as Brittany’s story.
She tells them how Brittany loved volleyball and soccer. How she sang in the chorus and was active in her church. She had just graduated from high school and was planning to attend Peace College.
Then she tells the girls how important it is to be careful and to be safe.
“Always keep your head up and know your surroundings,” she tells them. Use the buddy system when you are out. If you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right or isn’t safe, listen to that gut feeling. Ask for help; ask someone to walk you to your car.
Put away your cell phone when you are walking from one place to another. Your head needs to be up, she tells them, so you can be more aware.
“I want you always to be safe,” Thomas tells them.
Stuart Arens, chairman of the showcase board, said it’s the talk that the girls remember. The comments they receive after the showcase ends often involve the talk and how important it is.
“They get the message,” he said. “That’s what the coaches want them to hear. That’s the positive message.”
Arens said the event showcases the best of Wilson with volunteers, sponsor support and the city’s athletic facilities.
“We want them to have a great experience in Wilson,” he said, and that includes not only the soccer but also the facility and what the city has to offer.
“I’m sure, down the line, some of these girls are going to remember that,” he said.
Frazier said teams this year will be traveling across the state including Swansboro, Jacksonville, Hickory, Wilmington. A good number will play both days, he said, and will stay overnight. To accommodate schedules for teams to play two games, five games will be played at Fike this year, and one will be played at Hunt.
There will be two rounds Friday night and four rounds on Saturday, Frazier said.
The public is welcome to attend the showcase, which is funded by sponsors. Tickets are $5 each. Teams are not asked to pay an entry fee but can give donations that to directly to the scholarship fund.
The new turf fields at the soccer complex have been well-received by the Wilson Youth Soccer Association.
“We’re excited with the turf fields,” Frazier said.
Gillette was already considered a top venue in the state. “We think we have taken it to the next level.”
In addition to the two new artificial turf fields at Gillette, funded by the Wilson hotel tax, there’s improved accessibility with a series of walking paths, improved drainage to all six original fields, improved irrigation, a pavilion area with a big blue shade structure, new lights and sponsorship banners.
The spring youth season kicks off in April, Frazier said, with around 1,000 recreation department kids playing on the turf and grass.
“Gillette is a beautiful place for our rec kids and WYSA to play,” he said.
Soccer players from around the country will visit Wilson throughout the year to play soccer. They like the amenities, so the tournaments continue to come here.
Frazier points out the scoreboards at the fields, the WiFi and the public address system as drawing cards. Greenlight has also installed high speed internet so the U.S. Youth Soccer League can livestream games when they play here in November and December. That tournament is huge. Around 160 girls and boys soccer teams come to town from across the country to play. The other two locations for the tournament are Disney World and Las Vegas, Frazier said. The tournament is so large that 40 additional teams must play in Rocky Mount. The economic impact for each city is around $1 million a day, he said.
The Olympic Development Program will be back in June with 70 to 90 teams from five states. Frazier said as many as 64 middle school teams will be at Gillette at one time for that event.