GRAND HAVEN -- Like most serious soccer players involved, Waterloo, Ind., resident Amber Oster competed in Soccer in the Sand on Saturday at Grand Haven State Park to enjoy some sun and fun.
Her U18 girls team made the 185-mile trek to participate in the two-day soccer tournament, expected to draw nearly 5,000 people and 105 teams from three states.
"It seemed really fun," said Oster, who led her DeKalb High School team with 16 goals last season. "We practiced once in Indiana, but the sand was nothing like this. The sand is a lot fluffier here; it’s more packed in Indiana."
Oster, an MVP at DeKalb, received a soccer scholarship at Manchester College (Ind.) and will begin her studies next fall
"This is just an event that they choose to do for fun," said Soccer in the Sand founder Chris Lemay, who played at Eastern Michigan University. "About 98 percent of them play in local clubs and, most of the time, they’re competing in grass events, so this is like, ‘Let’s just go have fun, play and swim in between games.’
"It’s like a fair. It comes to town once a year."
In its fifth year at Grand Haven, Soccer in the Sand also exists in California, Florida, Oregon and Massachusetts.
Lemay, who played soccer at Troy High School as well, said the concept came to him during an airplane ride to San Diego, where he has lived for 12 years.
"I thought, ‘Why in this beautiful area of San Diego isn’t someone creating a tournament on the beach?’" said Lemay, whose parents live in Spring Lake. "Living in San Diego, I thought it’d be a novel idea for kids to play in a completely different setting and atmosphere. We’ve had a lot of interest, and I immediately started reaching different areas that could accommodate an event.
"After San Diego, I chose Grand Haven. I grew up in Michigan and my parents had a house in Spring Lake that we used to vacation at, and the Grand Haven beach is fantastic. When I was a kid, I used to go there with my buddies and play soccer and swim."
The five-on-five tournament consists of eight 35-by-25-yard fields stretched from the parking lot to Lake Michigan with plenty of fans milling in between.
"It’s really fun; you don’t have to be so serious," said Alex Prout, who starts ninth grade this fall at Grand Haven. "You get to hang out at the beach all day and be with your friends and goof around.
"It’s harder in the sand -- a lot more running and a lot more tiring. The sand is all different levels and hard to run in."
Prout, who has played soccer since age seven, scored a goal in her Grand Rapids Crew U15 team’s 7-3 first-round win.
"We’ll probably do this every single year," said Prout, in her second summer at Soccer in the Sand.