Many college students come home for Christmas break looking forward to mom's cookies or clean laundry, but for a group of avid soccer players, the holiday season in Juneau also brings a chance to play ball with old friends.
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For 21-year-old Montana State University student Alex Newton, visiting Juneau this time of year always involves the Holiday Cup Soccer Tournament.
Newton started the game as a youngster and now plays for the Yellow Jackets in Billings.
"I love coming home; there's no place in the world like this place," Newton said. "All the friends and good times I've had here, the Holiday Cup just caps everything off."
Woody Groves, 22, played in the tournament years ago with the sons of Paul Dillon, a lawyer whose firm sponsors the tournament.
Recently married in New York, Groves said he had a time explaining the influence the game has on his holiday to his new wife, Yana.
"She knows how much I like playing soccer and she's never seen me play in a real game," he said. "We had to debate which family to visit and I guess I won."
Dillon and his law partner, Tom Findley, also Groves' stepfather, started the tournament to keep the kids busy during the school break. Findley died last year of cancer.
The law firm continues to sponsor the tournament, which had only a handful of participants back then. It grew over the years to include 36 teams and about 400 players that range in age from 9 to 60-plus. It's free to everyone.
Games are played indoors at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School with a felt ball that can be bounced off the gymnasium walls. Play is fast and furious, and ball-handling skills become more important than passing in the tight space.
Accidental contact brings many apologies and a hand to help opponents to their feet. Players dress casually in dark or light shirts, and sometimes an official for one game will switch shirts to play on the court an hour later.
Volunteer organizer Leslie Houston, who has put together tournament rosters and schedules for more than a dozen years, said she keeps doing it because she likes to see the longtime players come back to Juneau.
"It's a big social event," she said. "It's the only time of year they get to see each other again."
Games started Friday, when the school district ended classes for the break. They run through round robins and a single-elimination tournament to New Year's Eve, which brings the championship.
A big silver chalice donated by Dillon's mother a few years back is given to the winning team, which gets to keep it through the year.
Groves said when he played in high school, the Holiday Cup was widely talked about.
"For us the state championship was obviously the most important, but it added bragging rights to say you'd won the Holiday Cup," he remembered.
Newton, who also played for Juneau-Douglas, said the tournament nowadays allows him to reunite with people he played soccer with all his life.
"It's a chance to hang out with friends and play the game we all enjoy doing," he said.
Contact Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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