CHEYENNE – A group of pediatric physical therapists had a well-established soccer program for people with physical, intellectual and emotional disabilities by the time Brian Longbottom joined the effort nearly a decade ago.

The program had gone from six athletes practicing soccer skills in a church basement in the late 1990s to more than 20 players trapping, dribbling and shooting in a gym in the early 2010s. The physical therapists running the program knew there was more potential for growth and the need for a little more soccer expertise.

The group approached the Cheyenne Soccer Club about helping provide the latter. Longbottom, CSC’s technical director, jumped at the opportunity.

Eventually, Longbottom suggested the group adopt a United States Youth Soccer program specifically tailored for differently-abled people called TOPSoccer (The Outreach Program for Soccer). In the six years since, Cheyenne’s TOPSoccer program has become the benchmark for Wyoming.

Shannon Williams, Ashton Ellison and Katherine Martin have taken home the past three state player of the year awards. The program also has had volunteers recognized as the state “buddy” of the year and coaches tabbed as the state’s best.

CSC’s TOPSoccer program recently picked up its top individual honor to date when Longbottom was chosen as USYS’s West Region TOPSoccer coach of the year.

“(Longbottom) has a passion for the program, and his passion is really what has helped make it what it is today,” CSC board member Carey Lam said.

Lam was still in physical therapy school when she started volunteering with the original adaptive soccer program. She continues to participate with TOPSoccer as a physical therapist.

There are now 70 players who participate in the summer program. A few dozen continue when the program moves indoors during the cold weather months.

Longbottom likes TOPSoccer because the success isn’t measured in the standings. TOPSoccer is the sport in its purest form. Everyone involved picks up a figurative victory every session.

“We, as coaches, parents and players all seem to concentrate on the wins and losses and the competitive level of soccer,” Longbottom said. “Those become our main focuses, and we lose sight of what the game is all about – the roots of it, the spirit and passion of it.

“This has brought my passion back to the game because I get to see how the players interact with each other and cheer each other on. … It’s such a cool atmosphere that brightens my day and helps motivate me to serve the other programs in our club.”

Unlike other areas of the club, TOPSoccer is a headache-free environment for Longbottom. There are no complaints and coaching, playing time or favoritism.

Longbottom downplays his role in the growth of Cheyenne’s TOPSoccer program. He had an advantage when he took the reins because the group of physical therapists had already done the heavy lifting and gotten the program firmly established.

“We were able to add the Cheyenne Soccer Club name to it and get a little more structure because of the TOPSoccer program,” Longbottom said. “People liked it and told others about it. Word of mouth helped this program spread like wildfire, and that’s been really cool to see.”

Just as Longbottom credits the physical therapists for laying the foundation for what became the Capital City’s TopSoccer program, he praises the volunteer “buddies,” who help coach the players.

The first year CSC ran TOPsoccer, Longbottom required all the high school-age girls and boys in the Sting competitive program to be buddies.

“I told them they had to come out at least once, and then I wouldn’t mention it any more. If they wanted to help again after that, they could. If they didn’t want to, or weren’t comfortable, I wouldn’t say a word about it,” Longbottom said. “So many players have stuck around, and they have been invaluable to our program.”

Longbottom still enlists the help of Sting players and also drums up “buddies” from the nationally ranked Laramie County Community College women’s and men’s teams.

“Ethan Mathis is a guy who started helping me at 15 when he was playing with Sting and for (Cheyenne) Central,” Longbottom said. “He’s stuck with it even through his three years playing for LCCC. He’s been on the buddy side and on the coaching side.

“It’s cool to see how much the long-term buddies grow as well. It doesn’t take long for this program to have an impact on someone’s life, and that applies to both the players and the buddies.”

He recently had a player stop him after a scrimmage that ended the winter session to tell him how much he appreciated the program. That kind of feedback keeps Longbottom energized.

“This kid comes from a soccer family, so he has grown up kicking the ball around in the backyard with his siblings,” Longbottom said. “You could tell he was having fun doing drills with us, but he was kind of ho-humming around and seemed like he wasn’t as having as much fun as he hoped.

“We did this little 10-minute scrimmage at the end of our session, and his eyes lit up, and his face just started glowing. He came up afterward and told me that was the first game he had played. He was a little teary-eyed, telling me how much it meant to him, and that got me teary-eyed, too. That’s what TOPSoccer is all about.”

Jeremiah Johnke is the WyoSports editor. He can be reached at jjohnke@wyosports.net or 307-633-3137. Follow him on Twitter at @jjohnke.

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