The Beginning of It All
I was told to show up to Stoney's Pub on that hot August day, and while I thought I knew what to expect, there's always that element of surprise when these things go down. I've known Justin Lee and Jeremy Sharpe since 2010, and if there's always one thing I can expect from them, it's the unexpected. "Show up, bring a Delaware state flag and your camera." were the extent of my instructions, and I did as I was told. I sort of knew what was going on - I knew they had formed a non-profit organization and were looking to further the Bearfight Brigade into a charity venture. My fiancee had helped them obtain and submit the paperwork for this, and it's always kinda cool knowing a secret. Little did I know that was only the tip of the iceberg.
In front of about fifty people at Stoney's, there were Jeremy and Justin as well as Eric Shertz and Mark "Bolton" Dunfee. The meeting started late (as is usual protocol). Jeremy and Justin started talking. They were stepping away from their leadership roles in the Bearfight Brigade supporter's group to do Bearfight FC of Wilmington - an amateur soccer club in Delaware that would be a club run and owned wholly by supporters. The charity arm was just a portion of that - their big designs were on fielding a club competing for the US Open Cup. The more they talked, the more things were being put into motion. There were going to be membership drives to raise cash. There would be tryouts for the soccer team. They were going to compete in the Intercounty (Pennsylvania) Soccer League, which would allow them to qualify for the US Open Cup with eventual plans on moving all operations to Wilmington, Delaware. They would also look to start a youth team, and just like the first team it would be free to anyone who would make the cut. The sky was the limit.
Much Work To Do
You don't really realize how much work is involved in building a soccer club from scratch until you actually start building a club from scratch. Everything costs money, and for a start-up organization, you need literally everything. You need players. You need balls and a field. You need uniforms. You need to register with the league and pay for things. Fundraisers were held, with Lee and Sharpe making shirts, scarves, and other merchandise to sell to help raise money for the club. Tryouts were held at a small field in Pennsylvania, and only a handful of guys showed up for the first tryouts. Over three sessions, the players were selected, and then the fun began. Getting players to sign waivers and provide a passport photo for their player cards proved a logistical nightmare, with Justin having to put literally hundreds of miles on his car to collect these and turn them in to the league.
Shertz meanwhile was working with Toronto FC to get an international transfer certificate for FC captain Danny Califf. While officially retired, Califf agreed to play for the amateur side, but needed the paperwork done. Shertz worked with TFC to release his rights and send the certificate so he could take the field. Even though this is an amateur club in an amateur league, this wasn't going to be run like some beer league team.
Things Come Together
Within one month, the club had gone from an idea to an actual functioning club. September 8th was their first match against the Upper Moreland Rebels, and the excitement was tangible. But the fairy tale seemed to be over. The club went down a goal. And then another. And another. Down 4-0 toward the end of the match, the referee whistled Upper Moreland for a penalty. Jason Lopez scored the first goal in Bearfight FC history, but the celebration was to be short lived, as the club eventually lost 5-1. The second match would see a goal glut, but BFFC fell 5-4 to Fox Chase. And then a 4-0 loss to Hunter Senior.
Things off the field weren't much smoother. The club experienced a lot of turnover, both with players and management staff. A 5-5 draw with the historic Philadelphia Ukrainians (yes - the same Philadelphia Ukrainians that won four US Open Cups in the 1950's and 60's) was a sign that things were improving. A narrow 1-0 loss to Warrington and a 2-1 loss to the Ukrainians were proof that the club was heading in the right direction.
November turned out to be a brutal month though. A 3-0 loss to Upper Moreland was followed by a 5-1 thrashing by Colonial Senior, and then a 4-0 loss to Hunter Senior Hawks to end the first part of the season. Going into one of the snowiest winters on record, the club brought on Brian Kammersgaard as a manager. The former Brøndby goalkeeper brought about an immediate change in attitude at the club, but woes still followed. Because of the cold and snow, the club held practice at Mi Canchita - an indoor turf facility just outside of Wilmington. During the first practice, starting goalkeeper PJ Knoetgen broke his thumb, effectively ending his season. Still the club persevered, trialing several new players.Murph caught up with Jeremy and Justin in March, and everyone was confident heading into the second half of the season. The club lost a friendly against Lighthouse SC and returned to Intercounty play in April. The first match was a 5-2 loss to Fox Chase, but the club drew the next match 1-1 against Warrington.
Things Fall Apart
On April 20, I was entertaining my fiancee's family for dinner at our house when I got a call from Justin. I thought it was unusual - he's not one to just call out of the blue - so while I hate talking on the phone I answered his call. He asked if I was sitting down, and I lied and said I was, and he broke the news to me that Eric had died. I should have listened to him, as I nearly collapsed onto my kitchen floor. He said he didn't know much, except that Shertz had passed away the night before and that people were all going to Stoney's. I told my fiancee, and after a quick and somber dinner we sent our guests on their way. I texted Justin back and let him know I didn't feel comfortable driving since I couldn't concentrate. Entertaining for dinner had given me something else to focus on, but now that it was over I just couldn't stop thinking my friend being gone. I did what I knew how to do, which was write.
Justin and Jeremy also did what they knew how to do, which was organize. They organized fundraisers to pay for Eric's funeral and other expenses, and various other endeavors to ensure the family was taken care of during that time. Understandably, the business side of the club was put on hiatus while everyone grieved. The void that was left by Eric's passing was huge, and is one that is still trying to be filled today.
The club played their final match of the season on May 19, holding Colonial Senior to a 0-0 draw. The club finished the season 0-3-9, ending a season that would have folded a lot of other clubs. But the signs were all there that despite these very dark days, a new dawn was coming.
A New Dawn Rising
Bearfight FC has recently resumed operations after a summer hiatus, conducting three trial sessions. Each player is trying out for positions - nothing has been guaranteed, even to those who had spots last season. It will be very interesting to see what Coach Kammersgaard will be able to do with the players he's picked, especially after the learning curve of last season. The new schedule hasn't been released as of yet, but all signs point to the league getting underway shortly after Labor Day.
I talked to Jeremy about the upcoming season, and he said "We have set high goals for our 2014 season. On the pitch, we added a top level coach in Brian Kammergaard. Our squad is much improved from 2013. Our returning players showed that they have done a lot of work in the off season to improve, and we have added some very good young players to boost the club. Our goal is not just to win a few matches, but to grow and improve as a club, and to win our league."
"Off the pitch, we want to continue to grow the Bearfight family. We are a member run organization" he continued. "We are proud of that grassroots mentality. We want to promote that more. We want to reach out to the family and friends of our new and returning players to have them become involved in the organization. We have done a good job, to this point, at growing this family locally. We have appealed to people that believe that soccer should be grass roots, that people should have a say in their organization. Locally, we have done a great job of finding people that, like us, have a favorite MLS, USL, NASL, etc. club, but also believe that soccer clubs shouldn't be just for those with big money. It is a game of the people."
Jeremy also had some words for the Bearfight FC fans and members, saying "Going into 2014 season, we want our current members to reach out to new members, not just locally, but nationally. We know that there are pockets of like minded fans and supporters out there. We would never ask any of them to give up the loyalty they have to their 'pro' club, but to take that dissatisfaction they have with their league FOs and their club FOs, and join us in our club. We have set a very large, open ended long term goal, and that goal is to prove that people, not businesses or big money, can run a successful soccer club. We see that joy and love for the game that we have in a lot of pockets of the United States and the (rest of the) world. We ask our members to truly become ambassadors for our club, and where ever they go, they get others interested and involved in Bearfight FC. We want our membership, our family to be more than a local thing. We want to make noise. We want the establishment to start hearing about this club in Delaware that has members all over the United States, and see that the real strength of soccer in this country is in the the people that love the sport, not the sponsors on the ad board and on the kits."
You have to believe that if this club was able to survive such a first year, that quite literally anything is possible. If I know one thing about this club, it's to expect the unexpected.