Sunday, February 25, 2024

Community Engagement is the Goal of Lionsbridge Football Club

Lionsbridge Football Club calls Christopher Newport University home (Richard Strickland)

HAMPTON ROADS — Playing on the pitch at Christopher Newport University, the Lionsbridge Football Club is about much more than just wins and losses. The team has become a huge part of the Hampton Roads community.

After traveling to other semi-professional games with their families, Mike Vest and Kevin Joyce wanted to bring the excitement of the game to the Hampton Roads community. Together, the two brainstormed and decided to begin Lionsbridge Football Club.

“We started saying that we wished we could find something like that here in Hampton Roads. After researching it, we thought ‘what if we built one?’ For me, the wheels started spinning and they never really stopped,” Vest says.

From finding a facility to deciding what league to play in, who the head coach and players would be, Lionsbridge Football Club played its first game on May 5, 2018, with Vest and Joyce as co-founders.

“It was a Wednesday night in May, and we had over 1,000 people out there for the first-ever home game. It was on a school night and the weather was bad. Ever since then, we’ve had incredible crowds. We almost never have crowds that small these days. A lot of what we hear now is that people plan their summers around Lionsbridge games,” Vest said.

Lionsbridge Football Club fans are proud of their team (Richard Strickland)

While the game is the biggest draw, Vest and Joyce wanted the games to be a family-friendly environment. From bounce houses, food trucks, and kid participation, everyone from ages 3 to 103 can find something to enjoy.

“We wanted to create an experience where there would be something for everyone. If you are a hardcore soccer fan, you are certainly in the right spot. You won’t find better soccer anywhere in Hampton Roads than where our games are being played. We also realize that it needed to be more than that. We want people to bring the entire family out. You don’t have to be an enormous soccer fan to come out and have a good time,” Vest said.

Though Lionsbridge has had many successful seasons, Vest is adamant that a huge part of those winning seasons is thanks to Hampton Roads being so welcoming.

“It blows my mind that we have a ton of season ticket holders that wait the entire length of the off-season for Lionsbridge soccer season. We’re pulling people from as far away as Virginia Beach, Gloucester, Richmond, Williamsburg, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, people really are coming to our games from all over and it’s pretty incredible,” Vest said.

Lionsbridge Football Club is also constantly raising awareness for charities and nonprofits in the community. Each home game benefits a different charity. Volunteers from the charity are able to work the beer garden and a portion of the 50/50 raffle goes to the charity as well.

Lionsbridge players love to interact with the fans (Richard Strickland)

“We partner with a different nonprofit organization for every home game. They come out, they work in the beer tent, we help fundraise for them, recognize them on the field, they are recognized in the game program. We really try to build awareness of the large amount of volunteer organizations in our area. We are grateful to be a platform for many of these organizations to get their information out into the public,” Vest said.

When it comes to inspiring the next generation of soccer players, Vest and Joyce felt it was important to encourage youth soccer programs to come to the games. Each game, local soccer players from around Hampton Roads act as ball boys and girls and get the opportunity to line up on the field with the players for the National Anthem.

Lionsbridge Football Club head coach Chris Whalley reminds his players daily about the important role that they play in the Hampton Roads community. While the team is competitive and a loss may sting, Whalley has his sights set on seeing the bigger picture of what this program means to Hampton Roads.

“We can’t just judge things by wins and loses. We’ve had so much success off the field that I think we need to look at the big picture as we’re assessing whether the season was a success or not. For me, we can keep winning games, but doing things right and putting a great product on the field that can inspire people and unite this community, that’s just as important,” Whalley said.

A postgame autograph session happens at every game (Richard Strickland)

Many of the kids who watch Lionsbridge games look forward to the postgame autograph sessions, and the players on the field will stay until every autograph is signed.

“Soccer is slowly becoming a bigger sport in American culture. We talk to the guys about how important it is to be great role models for all people. We’re all competitive and we all want to win and we all have moments where we get let down, but we need to be good sports and play the game right. I always tell the team that when we go out into the community, we’re going to give 110%,” Whalley said.

Many of the Lionsbridge players have gone on to professional soccer careers, both on and off the pitch. From front office jobs to professional player contracts, Vest and Joyce want everyone who moves on from Lionsbridge to remember how important the aspect of community is.

What started as a dream for Vest and Joyce has become a staple in the Hampton Roads community.

“To see all the good that’s come from our program and to experience it ourselves, it’s exceeded our wildest expectations. We planned for a lot of things, but the positive moments, relationships and experiences that we didn’t plan for, those are the things that make our hearts skip a beat and make us feel that this has been the most rewarding parts of our lives,” Vest said.

Lionsbridge soccer season is in full swing until mid-July. The schedule, information on ticket sales, and more can be found on the Lionsbridge website, lionsbridgefc.com.

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