South Charlotte

Thunder adds diversity to the beautiful game

As coaches of a youth club-level soccer team, Derrick Gates and Stoney Sellars take their team, the TPM Thunder, to tournaments throughout the Southeast.

Their players draw praise from coaches and parents for their skillful play and good sportsmanship.

But there's another distinguishable feature that often separates the Thunder from other club teams. The Thunder consists of kids from various cultural backgrounds, many with families who can't afford the costs of playing on a team that does so much traveling.

That's the way Gates, a Dilworth resident, and Sellars designed the team two years ago when they started it.

The Thunder play under the direction of the 1sTouch ("first touch") Youth Development Program, Gates' fledgling nonprofit whose mission is to encourage minority youths to play sports that sometimes find less participation among minorities - sports like soccer, golf, tennis and lacrosse.

The Thunder is represented by five ethnic groups - African-American, Latino, Jewish, Caucasian and Indian - many of whom are from the uptown area and surrounding neighborhoods.

When the team was founded in 2009, Sellars says, three players were homeless. Even today, most of the Thunder's 14 players receive financial sponsorship to play through the team's corporate sponsor, Technology Project Management.

Team expenditures include leasing practice space at Alexander Street Park, entry fees for league and tournament play and room and board for overnight trips. Nine of the current Thunder players have remained with the team since its inception.

Gates, 39, says he drew inspiration for the program from his own childhood, when he often was the only Africa-American player on his soccer teams in Middletown, Ohio.

Gates and Sellars recruited minority youths into the program. Some came from other soccer programs Gates coached and some were students he was familiar with as a teacher at Trinity Episcopal School and KIPP Charlotte.

"We are 90 percent more diverse than any teams we play," Sellars says. "(They) all say, 'How did you get this team together? How did you get this diverse?' Which tells us they would like to see more of it."

Darius Washington, a 12-year-old Belmont resident and Thunder team member, said, "Other teams are taller, but we have more speed."

Only when he's prodded by a questioner to speak about the ethnic background of his team and its opponents does Darius observe there is a difference. "We have a different mix of cultures," he said. "It's good to meet new people and (find out) how they live."

Forward Matthew Hill-Huntley, 11, was one of the players Gates found at KIPP Charlotte. He played recreational soccer for three years but switched to 1sTouch last year.

"My science teacher asked if I was good at soccer," Matthew said. "When I said yes, she said I had good agility and good stamina and that Mr. Gates had a team."

Through the Cabarrus County-based Football Club Carolina Alliance, the Thunder plays in the Piedmont West Division of the North Carolina Youth Soccer Association, at the Classic Gold level.

Playing at the Bronze level in its first season, the Thunder won a 64-team tournament in Wilmington. On Nov. 12-13, it will play in the Capital Shootout tournament in Raleigh.

1sTouch also has developed a relationship with the Charlotte Condors youth lacrosse program, which has a similar mission. Gates says tennis and golf programs are on the way.