Union varsity soccer coach Juan Zavala gathered some of his players around him on a cool and cloudy Saturday morning at GRPS University.

“Okay,” he said with a big smile on his face. “Be engaging, be on top of it. We want everyone to feel good. They’ll be coming soon. Get ready.”

“They” were a few hundred elementary school students from a variety of Grand Rapids Public Schools. And Zavala and his players were there bright and early to introduce the young scholars to the beautiful game of soccer on this Saturday and another three Saturdays to come with the hope that some of them might even stick with the game all the way through high school.

Just five days later, on a beautiful, sunny fall day, the scene was repeated, but this time the coach was Ottawa Hills cross country coach Dan Ebright, and the people assisting him were many of his cross country and track and field distance runners.

Still, the vibe was the same: high energy, lots of smile, an emphasis on fun and the hope that maybe a few of the hundreds of young scholars gathered for a run might someday pursue the sport in high school.

Indeed, Ebright said he’s seen the benefits of the elementary school program at the high school level.

“To introduce our scholars to a sport at a young age is so important,” he said. “When they get to high school, hopefully they’ve been through a year or more of cross country. It makes a difference. Since we started this program in 2010, my experience at Ottawa Hills at the varsity level has been much better. It’s helped improve our program.”

For both the first week of soccer and cross country, the young participants had a large cadre of parents, grandparents, siblings and other supporters on the sidelines.

Kenia Boana was at the first week of soccer with her Southwest Elementary School - Academia Bilingüe second grader, Abisai Alvarez, who had never played organized soccer before. He was a bit nervous, and a bit cold, but Kenia couldn’t wait to see him get into the action.

“I’m so excited for this,” she said, looking around at hundreds of participants, parents and GRPS staff. “He’s never played before, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the program. Having him be with other friends and having the structure of a program like this will be great.”

Jolinda Lucas is a teacher and athletic director at Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy. She assists each elementary sport coordinator (people like Ebright and Zavala) with the behind-the-scenes tasks such as registrations, shirt orders and multitudes more that are needed to provide fun and well-organized athletic opportunities at the pre-high school levels.

She said the fall elementary school sports programs are an important first step for scholars like Abisai and the many others who came out for soccer and cross country.

“It’s all about sportsmanship, having fun and trying new things,” she said with a big smile.

Part of the fun for both soccer and cross-country participants was getting a new T-shirt. Lucas said it’s a big deal for the young scholars, and she thanked the Grand Rapids Public Schools Foundation for providing the resources that make the program possible, including not just the T-shirts but also equipment and staffing.

“We create a new shirt design each year for both soccer and cross country, and shirt colors are never the same from year-to-year,” she said. “We order 1,000 shirts and without the support of the (GRPS) Foundation, we would not be able to run a program of this caliber.”