Francis enjoys challenge as a coach

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Paul Francis appears to be setting up pawns on a chess board as he walks each person to their position.

But it isn’t a chess board, it’s a soccer field.

Each player has their own responsibility.

“Defense, remember to step up,” Francis says as the midfield referee blows the whistle.

On this day, the 8-Under Saints are playing quick-footed Juventis, which quickly dictates a fast tempo from the opening kickoff.

The first shot attempt goes wide.

Francis stays on the field and dodges the ball on occasion. He gives instructions to his players, who’d rather swarm to the ball than spread out and receive a pass.

Juventis keeps possession.

Another shot.

Another miss.

Francis continues to encourage his team as he hands the ball to his keeper for a goal kick. The ball doesn’t go far and the Saints’ goalie rushes back to the net while his teammates defend the space in front of him.

“Good job, Seth,” Francis says.

Juventis continues to pressure and finally scores.

Unphased by the goal, the Saints keep battling and attacking the ball.

“Right now, what I’m teaching them is the game itself,” Francis said. “I always tell them to let the ball come to you. I try to play them in positions where they can have fun all the while learning the game. I have seen tremendous improvement from our very first game.

“It’s been amazing. They’re soaking everything up. I’m proud of them.”

The Saints eventually earn a 1-1 draw on the day.

After a short post-game chat, Francis talks with a couple of parents while his other squad — the 14U Dream Team — warms up for its match against the Blazers.

Kickoff arrives and both teams impose their will on each other.

Neither can find any consistent rhythm as the ball pings back and forth between the players.

Unlike the earlier game, Francis is a little more vocal.

“With the younger kids, you have to coach them a little different,” Francis said. “You have different goals for them to reach. With the older kids, you get to put a little more pressure [on them] because your aspects change.

“They’re a little older and understand more, so it’s a little more fun coaching them, I guess. Honestly, it’s fun all around.”

The Blazers strike quickly, build on their advantage and walk away with a win.

Victory, defeat or draw doesn’t affect Francis.

A senior at Southern Wayne who grew up playing in the Mount Olive Parks & Rec basketball league, he’s using this unusual year to give back to his community.

“With COVID, I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands,” said Francis, a four-sport athlete who has collegiate aspirations. “I wanted to give back. When [MOPR director] Josh [Phillips] hit me up and said he needed some coaches and with everything going on, I said ‘you know what, the kids are probably just as bored as I am.’

“I have not regretted it.”

Now a coach who manages two teams with different personalities and characteristics, Francis has grasped some concepts from his high school coaches. He’s applied that knowledge in hopes that he can keep the younger players interested in soccer and help develop the older players for either middle school or high school.

“Whenever you first meet them, they’re a little shell, kind of scared and nervous,” Francis said. “As time goes on, they open up and start to express themselves. It’s truly amazing.”

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