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Onside Sports offers alternative to traditional youth programs

Church-based program expects to have 4,000 registered in Guelph in next five years

A church-based sports organization in Guelph is giving traditional youth offerings in the city a run for their money.

Onside Sports, a not-for-profit organization currently offering soccer, ball hockey and summer camps for children ages 4-12, now has a total of 2,000 registered throughout the year, with plans to up that number to 4,000 by 2021. There is also talk of expanding into ice hockey.

"Our goal within five years is to be in 15 cities," says Bryan Gillmore, the youth pastor at Crestwicke Baptist Church who is stepping down from that role soon to run Onside Sports full time.

"We want to connect churches and communities through sport," said Gillmore, a 30-year-old Brantford native. "We offer families top-of-the line sports programs and camps for an affordable rate. We want families to be able to afford to play."

Parent Spiro Theologos calls Onside Sports "probably the best kept secret in Guelph. It's the most affordable sports organization in the city of Guelph and it's just really well organized and really well run," Theologos said.

Although based in Christian values, Gillmore said Onside Sports is not a necessarily a religious organization. He estimates that 95 percent of the families that sign their children up with Onside Sports don't attend Crestwicke.

"The majority of our participants are from non-church backgrounds, that's our target audience ... I don't want to be known as a church league," said Gillmore.

"We never imagined it would be this big. But we do it well, it all spreads by word of mouth, and if you do something well people want to get behind it."

He said the cost ($100 for ball hockey, $130 for a week-long camp), structure and the fact there is a focus on including families in the experience are what makes it such a popular concept.

"I probably know 80 percent of the people by name," Gillmore said.

Theologos said he also likes the fact an effort is made to make the co-ed teams equal before the season through a skill testing night

Lyn Stewart dropped off a casserole in the kitchen for the supper before heading to the gym to watch her grandson play.

"The interaction with the kids, the parents and the people running it is awesome," Stewart said. "It's very family-oriented. Sports is the cherry on the sundae, but it's everything underneath it that makes it so great."

Onside Sports started in 2010 when Gillmore joined Crestwicke Baptist Church as youth pastor.

With the church based at the old YMCA building on Speedvale Avenue it had a large underutilized gym, and with what Gillmore thought was a void in the youth sports offerings in the neighbourhood, the church started up a small ball hockey program.

That grew to a full ball hockey league that takes place two nights a week in the fall and one night a week in the winter. A summer soccer league at the University of Guelph on Sundays was added three years ago.

Onside Sports also offers soccer, ball hockey and, soon, ultimate Frisbee summer camps.

"When registration opens up on line it sells out in 30 minutes," Gillmore said of the ball hockey. "We don't advertise. That's the crazy thing."

Eight of their summer camps this year already have waiting lists.

Three years ago the Sunday afternoon soccer started and it now has 250 participants.

"You play on the same night every week at the same time. We want to keep it convenient for families," Gillmore said.

The leagues are run largely through volunteers and take pains to include families. Thursday night ball hockey sees supper provided through the church kitchen, knowing families don't have much time to get home from work and make supper on a week night before heading off to ball hockey. Donations, food and money, cover the cost of the supper.

They keep costs down by running many of the programs at the church, using volunteers to run and coach programs and through donations.

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