Two days, 400 teams, 1,000 games

In its 35th year, locally-run soccer tournament is bigger than ever


A year’s worth of preparation by members of the East Meadow Soccer Club culminated last weekend in a tournament in which 6,000 players competed on fields throughout Long Island.

The 35th annual East Meadow Summer Tournament welcomed 400 teams from across the Northeast — including a squad from Canada — for more than 1,000 games in just two days, played on 50 fields at facilities including Arthur J. Speno Memorial Park, Salisbury Park Drive’s Field of Dreams and McVey Elementary School, all in East Meadow.

The club, now its 41st year, began the event in 1978 as a small tournament to prepare athletes for the fall season. Each summer, however, word of the tournament spread, and more teams wanted to take part, club president Eric Schwartz said. The tournament reached its peak three years ago, when 500 teams registered. “It’s one of the largest in the Northeast at this point,” Schwartz said.

The event has grown so large that as soon as it ends, club members begin planning the next one. “We’ve already started planning next year’s tournament,” said Steven Epstein, who has served as tournament director for the last eight years. “It’s a yearlong project.”

The preparations, Epstein explained, include soliciting teams, obtaining field permits, requesting sanctions from a variety of soccer associations, completing registration, ordering equipment and trophies, and scheduling.

Other committee members include Danny Alonzo, Phil Hoenscheid, Tom Alio, Anne Zajack, Bob Grieser, Sean Russell and C.J. Orlando, all from East Meadow.

Scheduling so many games in so little time is a daunting challenge, but club members go the extra mile by studying each participating team’s history to ensure that it is grouped with other teams of the same skill level. “What we pride ourselves on is providing a competitive level of play for every team that enters,” Schwartz said.

This year, teams were divided into 52 divisions, grouped by age and skill level. The players’ ages ranged from 8 to 19. The tournament ended Sunday night with the championship games of the oldest boys’ and girls’ divisions at the Mitchel Athletic Field Complex in Uniondale, announced by students from Hofstra University’s school of broadcasting. In keeping with an annual tradition, the club presented the MVPs of both games with college scholarships.

Charity is a large part of the soccer club’s focus. It is a nonprofit organization, and all the money it raises funds its programs, training clinics, tournaments and intramurals.

In 2009, the group renamed one its younger age brackets Melissa’s Rainbow of Joy, which, along with a charity of the same name, honor Melissa Siegel, an East Meadow resident and soccer player who was killed in 2000 when she was struck by a drunk driver. The charity, founded by Melissa’s sister Allison, promotes drunk driving awareness.

The club also sends jerseys and equipment to soccer clubs and churches in the Bahamas, Haiti and Grenada each year. “So there’s East Meadow jerseys running around in the Bahamas,” said Alio, a co-vice president who has been with the club for 21 years.

The club hosts seasonal intramural and travel programs, other tournaments and an indoor winter league at Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick.

Schwartz said that neither the club nor the summer tournament would be what they are today without the efforts of Stanley Ruppenthal, a Nassau County police officer and a club president for 10 years who died last year. “Under his direction, the tournament grew to its highest levels,” Schwartz said.

The event has been canceled just once, in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene made landfall on Long Island the day the competition was scheduled to begin. Schwartz recalled that he and Epstein sent emails to thousands of parents two days before the games were scheduled to start, informing them of the cancellation. Legally, Schwartz said, the club could have kept the entry fees that had already been collected, but instead it refunded every penny. “It was a big financial hit for the club,” Schwartz said. “But you have to do the right thing.”

Fortunately for club officials, this year’s tournament featured clear, sunny skies.

And though it’s over, officials are already back at work, preparing for next year’s tournament. “It’s just an incredible event,” Schwartz said. “While it takes a tremendous amount of effort, when you go from site to site and see all the kids and families having a good time, it’s well worth it.”