SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Dressed in a Patrick Henry Panther soccer uniform, eighth-grader Kacie Adler felt like she had already won before the ball was even kicked in the Sioux Falls School District’s first-ever middle school soccer matches. 

“As a seventh-grader I wanted to do soccer so it was really exciting seeing it actually become a program for all schools,” Adler told KELOLAND News ahead of the Panthers’ match against Memorial Middle School. “It’s introduced me to new people and I think that’s really cool and exciting.” 

Adler said she studies in the honors program at Patrick Henry and that sometimes makes it challenging to meet new friends, something middle school soccer has changed. 

Her coach, Eric Heiser, said half of the Panther team has never played the sport of soccer before. 

“The best part is there’s girls that don’t have the opportunity to play soccer other than through the school system,” Heiser said. “The teamwork aspect of it is fun to watch grow.” 

Heiser said he remembers when high school soccer was still considered a “club” sport and not recognized by the South Dakota High School Activities Association. He said seeing Sioux Falls middle schools starting to offer the sport was a good way to let students develop new passions and skills. 

According to Casey Meile, coordinator of athletics for the Sioux Falls School District, getting more participation in high school soccer programs is part of the goal of offering soccer to eighth-grade students.    

“Ultimately, we hope to increase our participation at the high school level and that middle school feeder program is what generates that,” Meile said. “It’s a great day for the Sioux Falls schools and our students in the schools.” 

Meile said a survey sent to students and parents more than a year ago resulted in expanded middle school athletics to include boys and girls soccer as well as middle school performance dance and boys and girls wrestling. 

In the fall, middle schools offer cross country, football, performance dance and volleyball, while in the winter basketball and wrestling are the two sports. Soccer joined track and field as the lone spring sports. 

On Thursday, the fields at the Sanford Sports Complex were full of teams from the six public middle schools – Ben Reifel, Edison, George McGovern, Memorial, Patrick Henry and Whittier. 

Along with coaches and players, soccer referees were needed to get the games started Thursday. Referee Tim Thomas said he was happy to be part of a historic day for soccer in Sioux Falls. 

“The enthusiasm, you can hear it from the stands,” Thomas said. “It’s louder than some high school games I’ve been to. I think it’s great for the city of Sioux Falls to allow these kids to start playing soccer at an early age.” 

Meile said Dakota Alliance, the youth soccer organization in Sioux Falls, helped Sioux Falls form its middle school league. 

“Middle school in Sioux Falls is alive and well,” Meile said. “We are very fortunate for Dakota Alliance and the impact that they’ve had in Sioux Falls.”

There will be a total of five games this season and the season will end on Tuesday, May 9.