Participation in youth sports in the City of Houston is at an all-time high.

There are 115 finishing the current soccer season and a whopping 195 signed up to play baseball and softball this summer. The average for the latter is about 150 players per year.

Combined with the swim team, which is hosting sign-ups Monday and Tuesday, it’s a busy time for the Houston Parks and Recreation department. The organization also hosts a youth basketball league and runs the swimming pool throughout the summer.

All of the programs are run by the city under the leadership of Jim Root, who serves as parks and recreation director.

“Our focus is on providing programs that the kids enjoy and have fun with,” Root said.

The soccer program includes youth ages four through 18. The youngest division — ages 4-6 — play their games on a small field next to the swimming pool. The remaining groups play mostly at the city airport. Some of the oldest division’s games take place at the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce Fairgrounds.

All but the youngest group travel. They compete against Mountain View, Cabool and Mountain Grove.

Soccer is the most challenging sport the park department hosts. Because it is not offered through the school system, there are not as many knowledgeable parents available to coach. Finding referees is also difficult. Root brings many of them from out of town.

“It’s a great program,” Root said. “We just need some knowledgeable people to make it a better program.”

Root is hopeful that the city could potentially develop a complex to host all the games in one location. He also wouldn’t mind seeing the sport offered through the school system one day.

At the very least, the program as it is currently structured offers area youth the opportunity to play another sport between the basketball and baseball seasons.

“It’s something these kids enjoy and could grow some day,” Root said. “It still gives our little kids something to do when there is not much else to do until junior high. It gives them another activity.”

The summer leagues are easily the most popular. Like soccer, there are five age categories for baseball and softball. Children ages 4-6 play t-ball and advance to coach toss at ages 7-8. When they turn nine, girls have the option of playing in the softball league. There are both baseball and softball teams offered in the 9-10, 11-12 and 13-16 age groups.

Root said he has two priorities with every league: make it fun and teach the kids the game.

“These programs are set up so that when these kids get to junior high and high school, coaches don’t have to teach them how to dribble, how to throw the ball or how to hit,” he said.

Even with rising sign-up costs to cover costs for insurance, field maintenance and officials, participation continues to remain steady in most leagues and grow in others. There are plans to offer even more activities for the community. Root would like to offer tennis and disc golf during the summer. He has also been approached to host a 5K run.

Root said he is proud of the number — and especially the quality — of programs offered in a town of around 2,000.

“When people talk about Houston Parks and Rec, a lot of times my name is going to come up,” he said. “There’s some pride to want to provide as good of programs as possible. If you do your job right, you should take pride in what you do.”

But Root is quick to point out the parks and recreation department is not a one-person show. A volunteer park board meets monthly to help oversee operation of the department. Root credited a supportive city council and former mayor Steve Hutcheson. His replacement, Don Tottingham, was a longtime member of the park board.

There are also many parents who volunteer their time as coaches and serve in other capacities.

“I think we have a first-class program for a community our size,” Root said. “We get a lot more pats on the back than negative responses. I feel like we’ve got the right amount and right kind of people in our programs.

“I think we’re going in the right direction.”

I think we have a first-class program for a community our size. We get a lot more pats on the back than negative responses. I feel like we’ve got the right amount and right kind of people in our programs. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

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