Coach Sal Lopez (far right) gets his team in position for a photo with Diesel, the Houston Dynamo mascot (back right), during ODC's Opening Day ceremonies last Saturday. (Photo by Landan Kuhlmann)

If local residents were out and about on Arbor Vitae Drive or Pinemont Drive early last Saturday morning, they might have been taken aback seeing a wave of colorful banners and smiling children on their way from Collier Regional Library to the Oaks Dads' Club soccer fields a short distance away.

But for ODC soccer president Chad Symcox, the expressions that mattered were not on the faces of passersby – they were on the faces of exuberant children gleefully announcing the return of ODC soccer’s Opening Day ceremonies.

“Seeing all those smiles and everything is just incredible to me,” he said. “The parents and kids have all wanted this for a long period of time – and the kids definitely want to be able to get back to some kind of normalcy.”

Each year, the Oaks Dads' Club has kicked off its competitive soccer season with Opening Day ceremonies full of fun, team cheers and anticipation. It’s something that was missing last year due to COVID-19, but returned with a bang bright and early last Saturday, Sept. 11.

At least a dozen teams marched north on Arbor Vitae Drive from Collier Regional Library before making a sharp left and heading west to the fields at 6500 Rena St. for festivities, which included a special visit from Houston Dynamo mascot Diesel. Members of the U.S. military picked their favorite banner from each age group during a special ceremony, along with a moment of silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives during the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

The league has under-4, U-6, U-8, U-11 and U-14 teams for kids in the area, and parents such as Oak Forest resident Brandon Abel were thankful for the return to action. He has sons ages 6 and 8 playing in the league.

“It’s good to just be outside and to be coming together, with people making their own decisions about how to keep their families safe and what’s best for them,” said Abel, who has been bringing his sons to ODC for five years. “It’s a great community atmosphere, and we’re happy to be a part of it.”

The sentiment was the same for those such as Sal Lopez, whose 6-year-old son is playing competitively with ODC for the first time this season.

“We really didn’t know what we missed,” said Lopez, who held his son out last season due to concerns over COVID-19. “Then I see (that excitement) on all the other kids that are back, and it’s great. They’re ready to go.”

In essence, Symcox said that excitement is what makes everything worth the effort put into Opening Day ceremonies each year. And even though things may not be completely back to normal, he said he’s grateful to at least be able to get that fulfillment.

“Watching the kids’ faces light up, that’s all we care about,” he said.

What’s more, Abel said ODC and sports in general can help unite an area – which is a special commodity given that social interaction has been at a premium over the last 18 months.

It’s one that he will never tire of taking part in.

“We meet people that live in our neighborhood we don’t necessarily go to school with, and then we see them year after year,” Abel said. “It’s not only the kids that are friends – the adults become our friend group, too, through the teams our kids have played on throughout the years. It just feels like family.”

Lopez echoed the sentiment and said he couldn’t ask for anything more than what ODC does for the area’s kids and parents, including last Saturday’s ceremonies.

“It’s a perfect day,” he said.

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