PLACENTIA, Calif. (July 7, 2021) – In 1991, the Junior United Soccer Association (most often known as JUSA), realizing there was a need to provide access to the sport of soccer for children with disabilities, started its initial foray into developing its own TOPSoccer program. TOPSoccer is a modified version of the game, designed to allow affordable opportunities for fitness, fun, and building self-esteem. It is placed in a community-based recreational setting allowing for full participation, concentration, and enjoyment for each athlete.

This summer, JUSA is celebrating the 30th year of its TOPSoccer program, known as JUSA Top Dogs. While JUSA itself began as a non-profit youth soccer organization in 1974, its TOPSoccer program was ground-breaking in Southern California in 1991 and formed the beginnings of Cal South’s establishment of TOPSoccer programs through many of its leagues and clubs to this day. (US Youth Soccer itself began its overall TOPSoccer focus in 1991 as well.)

To inform our membership more about TOPSoccer and JUSA Top Dogs’ 30th anniversary celebration, we spoke to Sandy Castillo, who has not only spearheaded JUSA’s TOPSoccer program since the beginning but serves as both the Cal South TOPSoccer Committee Chair and US Youth Soccer’s West Region TOPSoccer Chair as well.

Q: What led to JUSA deciding to start a TOPSoccer program?

Sandy Castillo: I had coached a young player on my Division 5 team who had Down syndrome. Once I got over that initial “I have no idea how to coach her” moment, it became such a great experience for all of my players and parents. Her mom, Nancy Ellingson, and I became friends.

In 1991, after a US Youth Soccer TOPSoccer Workshop, Greta Walton (then the Cal South District 3 Commissioner), put together an ad hoc committee to determine if such a program would be possible. The other committee members included Paul Doty, Shari Lee (a special education teacher whose husband was the JUSA president), and Nancy Ellingson. JUSA stepped up and said they would sponsor and financially support this program if coaches for it could be found. Both Nancy and Shari had some connections at the Placentia Yorba Linda School District, and shortly afterward, I received a phone call. The rest is history.

JUSA has been true to their word during the entire 30 years of our program. Their first and only question has always been, “What do you need to run your program?” Most importantly, what led JUSA to the creation of the program was a desire to provide soccer for everyone. Going in, we had no clue how to do it, but we were not going to fail our players.

Q: Tell us briefly about your daughter Julie’s involvement with the program, and how she was instrumental in securing your connection to TOPSoccer.

Castillo: As I coached Julie in rec soccer, she fell in love with Leslie Ellingson when she was on my Division 5 team. When I told Julie that I was going to be coaching Leslie in TOPSoccer, a new program where Leslie could fully participate, Julie didn’t hesitate and told me “I’m helping!” She was 11 years old at the time. Julie would get her friends to volunteer with TOPSoccer too and would talk everyone’s ears off about the program. She would tell me, “Enjoy running the program for now because I’m going to take it over!” She was studying to be either a Special Ed or an Adaptive Physical Ed (A.P.E) teacher. After her death in 2000, I almost didn’t go back to the program, but I could not disappoint my daughter. It is Julie’s spirit and our mutual love for our players that keep me going back.

Q: What were some of the biggest obstacles JUSA faced in starting the program 30 years ago?

Castillo: The biggest obstacle at first was that there was no “blueprint” as to how to run such a program. It has always been a learning experience. Some parents had been told for years that their child would never be able to play soccer, and then suddenly, there were these two women telling them that their child could. It was often difficult to get these parents, who had encountered so many frustrations, to believe that soccer was possible.

We were lucky that JUSA gave us free reign in running the program and provided us with the funds we needed. We established rules for the program that we still live by today: 1) make it fun, and 2) keep the players safe.

Another obstacle was the age requirements. Since we are part of US Youth Soccer, the age limit was then U19. As our players started aging and the program grew, it became a problem. How do you tell a player who chronologically is 21 but cognitively is 12 that they can’t play soccer anymore? Well, you don’t. Fortunately, that rule was finally changed by USYS in 2008.

Q: What events do you have planned in conjunction with the 30th anniversary celebration?

Castillo: The original plan was to celebrate our 30th at our Annual Soccer Fest, but due to the ongoing situation with the pandemic, we could not host one last year (2020) and will not be hosting one this year. In lieu of such an event, what I would like to see happen this year is an acknowledgment of 30 years of dedication to TOPSoccer for Dennis Dohm, one of our coaches who has been with us since the beginning, and for Leslie Ellingson, who has now been playing and participating with TOPSoccer for 30 years. She is the reason this started in JUSA.

We recently had a 30th Anniversary logo patch made which will be on our uniforms, and which our coaches and volunteers will receive on t-shirts as well. The bulldog in the logo represents our team (JUSA Top Dogs), and the monkey honors my daughter Julie.

Q: As Cal South’s TOPSoccer chair, what are the biggest challenges you have found in getting leagues to form TOPSoccer programs of their own?

Castillo: The biggest challenge is finding the right person who will commit to running a TOPSoccer program. There is nothing sadder than having a program start, having its players get used to participating, and then suddenly the people who are in charge give the program up.

There is also the issue of finding field space and obtaining funding. Cal South does help provide start-up equipment for new programs, but not with uniforms or trophies. Leagues have to have skin in the game, because if the league does not support its TOPSoccer program 100%, it will certainly fail.

But it’s not all negative. There are numerous successful TOPSoccer programs throughout Cal South. Best of all, there are now TOPSoccer Coaching Certification and Buddy Courses provided free of cost by Cal South.

Q: What is the best way for someone interested in getting involved with TOPSoccer to do so?

Castillo: It is very important that people understand that TOPSoccer truly is a community-based effort. From the buddies and volunteers who show up, to the coaches who give their all in guiding the experience, to the parents who entrust their players to us, to the leagues and Cal South who provide the structure and financial support… everyone has a vital role to play to help our kids get their chance to enjoy soccer.

We are always looking for volunteers to help either with directly working with our players or helping with the clerical side. We always need TOPSoccer “buddies” to help with the kids, and we always need more coaches. Any assistance in any area of the program is always appreciated.

If anyone is interested in getting involved with TOPSoccer, they can email me with what they are interested in doing (volunteering, starting a program, donating, etc.), and by including the area where they live. If they wish to volunteer, I will put them in contact with the nearest program to them. If they are interested in starting a program, I can provide the information and steps necessary to begin the process and help guide them through it.

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If you wish to learn more about Cal South TOPSoccer, please visit https://calsouth.com/topsoccer/. There are listings for all of the Cal South leagues and clubs that are currently hosting TOPSoccer programs, along with main contact information.

To learn more about JUSA TOPSoccer, click here.