Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder

They may be the Gabriola Soccer Association, but at the moment, none of the teams’ upcoming home games will be played on the island.

All three of the island’s sports fields – one at Gabriola Elementary School and two at Rollo McLay Community Park, the Rollo fields run by the Regional District of Nanaimo – are currently closed to the public.

The grounds department for Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools made the decision to close the GES field to non-school user groups, including the soccer association, “to preserve the grass and allow the field to regrow as it has been worn down hard this fall [2023], and from years prior,” according to a statement from the school district; ensuring the field is usable by the school and students takes priority, NLPS said.

The winter soccer season began Jan. 13, but the kids on the four teams playing league soccer will travel to Nanaimo and play their four remaining home games at Beban Park, where they also play their away games. The Nanaimo United Soccer Club agreed to host Gabriola’s teams for the additional games, which the Gabriola Soccer Association (GSA) is grateful for, Matt McLuckie, GSA president, told the Sounder.

The home-away-from-home games mean extra travel costs and time commitments for families.

McLuckie said the GSA is not feeling very positive about the field access situation. “We as an organization have come to realize that we need more fields on the island.”

The GSA board decided at their Jan. 11 meeting to form a committee to investigate how that could happen. Regardless of who might own or operate it, local government or otherwise, McLuckie said GSA wants to see a field that is built for soccer play.

“We’re frustrated that we can’t use [the fields] first off, but we definitely want the fields to be healthy,” McLuckie said. “We understand that they need maintenance and they need to be taken care of. We don’t want to trash the fields – we have no desire to impact the fields in a bad way.”

The association would like to be consulted when considerations are underway to close fields to use. “I really hope those that make the decisions on these closures give significant weight to what our kids miss out on as well as the condition of the fields when they make these calls,” McLuckie said.

Around 70 kids are enrolled in soccer this season, including four competitive teams and one skills-learning group. For a couple seasons now the soccer association has been left searching for alternative locations to play, sometimes partway through the season, when the school district has closed the Gabriola Elementary field. After two years of extreme summer weather and drought left the school field in poor condition, McLuckie applauded the school district for the repairs conducted over summer 2023, but “we’re still in same situation” of having no field to play games.

In a statement, NLPS said, “After the field has had a chance to ‘breathe’ after the time off, grounds [department] may look at reopening the field and increasing its use. This closure will remain in effect until further notice.”

When asked whether an annual winter closure was planned for the field, NLPS said no decision had been made at this time.

McLuckie highlighted the support of GES’s principal, Marc Daneault, to allow soccer practices twice a week on the field or in the gymnasium under the guise of an after-school activity, but isn’t sure if that arrangement will continue next school year.

McLuckie said the association has been active in the RDN’s engagement process for the Electoral Area B recreation and parks master plan, having participated in a stakeholder workshop and parents have communicated the challenge of field space on the island. They also intend to make a presentation to the Area B parks and open spaces advisory committee.

“We’re looking forward and think it’s really time to do something,” McLuckie said. In such early stages of tackling long-term field access, McLuckie said GSA is open to hearing ideas from the community, including if someone has land they are willing to make available for soccer.

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