When Hunter Norton joined the under-13 Gunners Blue boys soccer team at the Augusta Arsenal Soccer Club this past fall, it created an interesting situation.
Hunter's younger brother Reed, who is 10, was already on the team. Hunter had played on a Norcross, Ga., team previously, while Reed was playing up two age groups for the local club. So instead of the more common situation where the younger brother joins the older brother's team, Hunter, 12, was joining younger brother Reed's team.
The boys' father, Tom Norton, thinks the reversal helped smooth over any potential sibling hostility.
"They enjoy playing with each other," said Tom, who is the technical director at the club. "They've done it a lot and I think on the field they're great, they don't have any issues."
Reed is one of a dozen or so players at Augusta Arsenal who play one or more levels higher than most kids their age.
This weekend those overachieving kids will get to showcase their skills along with their teammates at the 20th Annual Augusta Arsenal Spring Shootout at Fort Gordon.
Some of those 12 kids might stand out on the field because they're a little smaller than their teammates, but for the most part their extraordinary talent helps them blend in with the older players.
Bennett Yort, 10, is one of those kids. Bennett should play on Augusta Arsenal's U-10 team, but the Episcopal Day School fifth-grader's maturity and talent helped him make the U-11 team right before his ninth birthday. Now, he's a captain on coach Ryan McArdle's U-12 squad.
"He acts like a 13-year-old," McArdle said. "He practices like crazy by himself at home, even more than some of the high school kids we coach do."
Tom Norton and Kevin Kennedy, who is the club's director of coaching, demand a similar level of maturity and dedication from players who want to play higher than their age group. If a player isn't going to be one of the best players at the higher level, the club will usually deny their request to play up.
"It's not really something that you do because it's fun to do," Norton said.
That might be true, but the kids who are good enough to do it seem to enjoy the challenge.
Cara Smith, 11, and Annie Speese, 12, play for the Augusta Arsenal's U-13 girls team. That's two levels up for Cara and one for Annie. Neither is intimidated by playing with older girls.
"I'm used to it," said Annie, who started playing soccer when she was 5. "That's what I've done all my life."
Luke Waechter, 11, plays on the same team as Bennett. Luke jumped up an age group last year because he thought it would help him improve if he played against tougher competition.
That's one of the primary reasons Norton and Kennedy allow players to move up. Some kids, Norton said, need to be challenged and pushed a little harder in order to continue to develop. They wouldn't necessarily receive that extra push if they continued to play in their age group.
There can be drawbacks to playing up, though.
McArdle said if a player moves up before he or she is ready it can stunt their development because they won't get as many touches on the ball.
Another potential problem arises when kids hit their teen-age years. That's when size can emerge as a safety issue.
"It does get more challenging when the kids get in their mid-teens and one guy is 150 pounds and you're 100 pounds," McArdle said. "Right now it's a lot easier for the younger kids to play up as long as their footwork is that much better."
Bennett's mom, Caroline Yort, sometimes finds it tough to see her son out there playing with older boys.
She remembers a game last year when Bennett was on a breakaway and got taken out from behind. She told Norton how nervous that made her and he replied, "Just wait until he's a little older."
Not quite the comforting reply she had hoped to get, but Norton does understand how she feels.
"My son (Reed), you can definitely tell there's a difference in his size and the other kids," Norton said. "I think at some point, if size becomes an issue - just a physical issue - then it's time to move them back down again."
For now, though, it's time to play soccer.
EQUESTRIAN: Pine Top Farm in Thomson will play host to the Pine Top Winter Horse Trials on Saturday. Riders and horses from across the East Coast will compete in eventing, which includes dressage, cross-country and show jumping.
For more information call (706) 595-3792 or go to www.pinetopfarm.com.
Reach Kristy Shonka at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.
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