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Love of the game

Garin Coster knows his way around the intricacies of soccer. He doesn’t shout or grandstand, but his love for the game is evident.

Coster is co-owner and interim coach of Southern Oregon Starphire FC, a “fifth-tier” soccer team based in Medford. The team is nearing the end of its first season and faring well in the Pacific Premiere League.

Before Starphire was organized, Coster managed the Southern Oregon Fuego club from 2008 to 2015.

“I am a fan and supporter. I want soccer to grow here,” Coster said as his team gathered for a recent practice at a U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Twenty-five players, as young as 16 and as old as 38, battle against league foes in Livermore, Chico, Redding and Yuba City — all in California. Starphire also competes against “friendlies” outside of its league, including Lane United from Eugene, which plays in the Premiere Development League, two tiers above it. They will match up again Wednesday in Ashland.

Although the local guys have not yet toppled Lane, they have come close. They also came close to beating the Portland Timbers’ pro development team two tiers above them, losing just 1-0.

Just like their coach, the players participate for the love of the game.

Matt Ver Eecke, 33, has played the sport since he was old enough to walk in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is now a player-coach for the team, playing as a midfielder.

“In my book, small towns have strong soccer programs. You find some really strong players from these smaller communities,” says Ver Eecke, who has played at a number of levels across the West, including the Southern Oregon University club team. “We want to build interest and create something for fans (in the Rogue Valley.)”

The younger players bring their own strengths into the mix. Players such as Jorge Maldonado, goalie Johnny Morales and 16-year-old Ashland High School student Jahnoi Hall inject athletic skills to the club.

“I played since I was 7,” says Maldonado, from Medford. “I just liked the sport.”

He is a defenseman.

“I defend my goal, but also have the opportunity to go up front to help my teammates,” he says. “There is nothing better than zero (goals for the other team.)”

Hall, 16, and born and raised in Ashland, played center-middle for the Grizzlies and is a forward for Starphire.

“I mostly dish out balls to strikers and try to target and time the ball into the middle,” he says.

Hall has recorded “two or three” assists in the four games he played so far this season.

Starphire is down the ladder in national soccer hierarchy, but the competitive spirit thrives at every level. Coster says many of his players hope to be noticed by scouts who attend their matches, as a chance to move up the ladder.

The fifth tier is considered below the National Premiere Soccer League, where Southern Oregon Fuego competed against California division foes until last year. Third tier is the Premiere Development League, which includes Lane United in the Northwest.

Tier two includes the USL and North American Soccer League, a step below Major League Soccer, consisting of teams such as the Portland Timbers.

Starphire is a diverse group. Besides players from Ashland and the SOU NAIA men’s program, players hail from Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, other high schools and even from England. Sam White, a 6-foot-5 center back, is from London. Garin’s younger brother, Cameron, is the oldest player on the team, at 38.

The team’s season began in mid-May and runs through the end of July. The players are amateur level, all playing for the pure joy of it, and many to possibly catch notice at higher levels.

“It’s a springboard for the younger guys,” Coster says. “Scouts come to the matches, including college scouts.”

Starphire gets a boost from at least five area business sponsors and investors. Coster is a partner in the business, along with co-owner Juan Ibarra.

Coster, who starred in high school play at Cascade Christian in the 1980s, likes the combination of leadership from the older players and the promise of the younger players on his team. Besides their regular league schedule, playing each team twice, they take on the friendlies and play in tournaments.

“We’d love to get a few more fans. We could use a few more young families to come out and see us play,” he says.

Starphire’s schedule is posted on the team’s website: starphirefc.com.

The next home match is against Lane United at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Ashland High.

The final three league matches are all at U.S. Cellular Field at 7 p.m. against the Redding Royals July 23, Yuba City Alliance July 29 and Livermore Dynamos July 30.

The team is 3-2 in league play and 4-4 overall. There is no postseason competition. The league winner compiles the most points during the regular season.


Starphire players take part in drills during a recent practice at U.S. Cellular Community Park. [LARRY STAUTH JR./FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]
Southern Oregon Starphire FC goalkeeper Johnny Morales works on his craft during a recent team practice at U.S. Cellular Community Park. [LARRY STAUTH JR./FOR THE MAIL TRIBUNE]