ARLINGTON >> Legendary Arlington boys soccer coach John Werner won more than 300 games leading the Eagles over three decades, then coached at Castleton University for another. Between his England trips and youth programs, Werner built the game of soccer from the ground up in Southern Vermont.
Now, Werner is introducing an entire new group to the game.
Werner, 67, is leading one of the three Vermont chapters of TOPSoccer, a program that is a community-based training and placement program for young athletes with disabilities and designed to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer.
"I've coached for 40 years and it's one of the most rewarding days I've ever had as a coach," said an emotional Werner shortly after the first week of the program concluded. "To see it happen and the joy everyone had, I was very grateful for the help."
The program is part of the Southwestern Vermont Youth League, known better now for the man who founded it — Werner.
The focus is on athletes high school age and younger, but TOPSoccer is for athletes from 4 to 21 years of age.
In Vermont, there are two other TOPSoccer clubs, one in Essex and one in Woodstock. Ed DeMulder started the Essex club nine years ago and he did a seminar that Werner attended, he was instrumental in beginning the program in the state of Vermont.
TOPSoccer is coordinated through the Vermont Soccer Association and they helped purchase some of the equipment for the program.
"I believed we needed one down here but our towns were too little," Werner said. "So we decided to offer it league-wide in the SVYL."
Five of the towns bought in, including Arlington, Hoosick Falls, Manchester, Wilmington and the West River team.
"I knew a player that would qualify for TOPSoccer and it was the one piece we didn't have yet," Werner said.
Coaches include Patrick Dailey, Steve Houseman, Brad Lackey, Tracey Bowen, Kelli Grennan and Werner.
Bennington Sports and Graphics, run by Tom and Angela Husser, also donated shirts to the program, but it's more than that. The T-shirt colors match up with the buddies and are designed similar to the high school programs.
In a recent interview where DeMulder was named as the TOPSoccer coach of the year by U.S. Youth Soccer, he talked about starting a third program in Vermont, one — in this case — with a legendary coach attached.
"TOPSoccer needs a champion, and Ed says I'm that champion," Werner said.
The program isn't affiliated with Special Olympics but some of the highlights of it, including the buddies, are similar. Most of the time, they are players on varsity or JV at Arlington and Hoosick Falls, according to Werner. In Special Olympics parlance, they are called partners, but what they do is the same.
"The Special Olympics is awesome and we didn't want to step on any toes," Werner said.
For the buddies, the TOPSoccer program can spawn many different things.
"It can be life-changing, it can put a kid on a career path, so it's really good for them as well, not just the players," Werner said.
The inaugural season is four weeks long, on Sundays at Fisher Elementary School from 3 to 4:30 p.m. If the weather continues to stay nice, that may be extended. Within the first two weeks, Werner said he has been overwhelmed with e-mail and Facebook messages all complimenting the program and him as the leader of it.
"It's so rewarding to see the joy in the kids' faces when they're out there," Werner said.
For more information, go to www.vermontsoccer.org/topsoccer.