MANCHESTER — The town of Manchester is working hard to promote sports tourism and over the next few weeks, town manager John O'Keefe will see it first-hand as the town is hosting the first-ever Manchester College Soccer Series.
Starting tonight at Applejack Field at the Dana Thompson Rec Park, Manchester will host four college soccer games in the next three weeks. Tonight will be the only Division I matchup when the University of Vermont women take on University of Massachusetts-Amherst at 6 p.m. in a preseason game.
"We have Applejack and it's a great facility," said O'Keefe, who has been the town manager since 2007. "We've made a bunch of improvements and it's a great way to use the field. There's a bit of a hole in this area for college sports and we're trying to expose Manchester to millennials. Soccer is the easy choice."
Applejack Field is a natural grass field and is owned by the town and its Parks and Recreation Department. It holds about 1,000 fans, plus some standing room. There have been improvements to the field and to the amenities around it, including a new concession stand.
The series continues on August 28 when the Castleton University men host Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in a preseason contest and finishes off with a full day of the beautiful game on September 3 as the Middlebury College women host defending Division III national champions Williams College at noon. After a dedication of the town's newest athletic fields — Eckhardt Field and McClellan Field — at 2:30 p.m., the defending state runner-up Burr and Burton girls soccer team will host St. Johnsbury at 4 p.m.
Members from the Middlebury team are planning on meeting BBA players after the first game.
"The teams are full of solid student-athletes," O'Keefe said. "Both of my daughters play soccer, and I want them to see that if you're serious, you can go to any of these schools to get an education and play soccer at the same time."
The final game of the night and series is a Southern Vermont College men's home game against SUNY-Cobleskill at 7 p.m.
"Castleton and UVM play on turf, this gives them an opportunity to play on grass before their season begins," said O'Keefe, who played Division I soccer himself at SUNY Oneonta. "It wasn't a tough sell to the colleges."
The plan to having a college soccer series started more than a year ago. The four games are even in terms of gender, with two women's games and two men's games.
"One of the selling points of Manchester is that it's located centrally, and UVM is doing a nice job reaching out beyond Chittenden County. It's a clear direction from UVM that it's the University of Vermont, not just Burlington," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe and the town wanted to bring in the college games to show Manchester can be a place that can host soccer or lacrosse tournaments, among other sports, for high school and youth age athletes.
"The college games add an element of pizzazz to the town, if it's good enough for the college teams, it's good enough for high school or youth," O'Keefe said. "Logistically, a college game is a lot different, even lining the field was different. There's a lot we had to learn."
Players from youth soccer programs are going to work as ball boys and ball girls during the games.
"It's in Manchester, but this has definitely become regional," O'Keefe said. "There's a lot of UVM alums in [southern Vermont], and we've drawn people from Bennington all the way to Rutland."
Discussions continue between town officials in Manchester's role in sports tourism and the soccer series will be a good first test.
"The college games are the tip of the iceberg and this is just the start of the process," O'Keefe said. "I don't know what to expect, but I hope a lot of people show up, we can't just talk about it on Facebook. We hope it generates a lot of buzz."
Admission is $3 for students and seniors and $5 for adults.