Croatan assistant soccer coach Paul Payne runs players in the Seashore Soccer League’s college soccer training course through drills Monday in the first of six sessions meant to acclimate prep players to college expectations. (Zack Nally photo)

OCEAN — Nearly 40 boys soccer players gathered at Croatan High School on Monday for the first of a six-session college soccer training course put on by the Seashore Soccer League.

The three-week course is being taught by Paul Payne, an assistant coach at Croatan but a relatively new face on the Crystal Coast soccer scene.

“I knew I wanted to do something when we recognized high school soccer was going to get pushed back,” Payne said. “I want to give them exposure to what a college coach will demand of them. You may not be able to hit a ball 70 yards like a 21-year-old junior, but there are still lots of things you can do.”

The training course will take place Monday and Thursday of each week, with remaining dates of Thursday, Oct. 15; Monday, Oct. 19; and Oct. 22, 26 and 29. Sessions go from 6-8 p.m.

Payne first came to Croatan in 2018 after a 24-year career as a NCAA head soccer coach. His résumé includes serving as a past president for the United Soccer Coaches Association (formerly National Soccer Coaches Association of America) and the former Director of College Development Program for Steel Soccer, a prominent national youth soccer organization.

Payne was also a member of the Division II Men’s Soccer Committee, where he served as chair of the Northeast Region and sat as one of the eight on the national committee overseeing Division II Men’s Soccer and its national championship before retiring following the 2017 season.

The Pennsylvania transplant settled in Emerald Isle after seeking out a new vacation spot for himself and his family a few years earlier to making the move.

“I typed in Outer Banks on my phone and stumbled upon Emerald Isle,” he said. “My family went while I was still coaching a school in South Carolina, and they said it was just absolutely beautiful. We started renting, and then in 2014, we bought a home. We didn’t intend to move up here permanently, but my wife and I both got fed up with our jobs and made the move.”

Paul reached out to the only name he recognized from the area – Swansboro head coach Doug Kidd – but he was fully staffed and suggested Payne assist Croatan coach Paul Slater.

“Paul was generous to allow me to help out,” Payne said. “It keeps me involved and keeps me grounded. I have a different appreciation for the game after coming here.”

The adjustment from college to high school has been an interesting one for Payne, one he hopes to make easier for players hoping to make that leap in reverse.

“It’s smaller details like water breaks,” he said of college soccer. “If a coach says a water break is two minutes, you need to be back on the field before that time is up. Same with the buses. I’ve had to leave a kid behind for the NCAA tournament because he didn’t show up on time. It’s that kind of awareness that is pivotal at the college level.”

Payne’s course will focus on four sports components – technical, tactical, fitness and psychological – as well as five distinct principals specific to soccer.

“There’s five principles – you want to get penetration, width, depth, movement and creativity. You can watch a player like (Lionel) Messi and see he doesn’t know where he’s going with the ball half the time. (Soccer) is a simple game overcomplicated by a lot of coaches, so we’re trying to reinforce those principles.”

Payne also spoke on the social benefit of the course, an opportunity for student-athletes from West Carteret, East Carteret and Croatan to come together for the first time since March.

“At the end of the day, it’s a chance to go out and play and be with their friends,” Payne said. “They don’t have a lot of that going on right now, so these opportunities are important.”

Slater, who was in attendance along with West coach Charles Dailey, also commented on the role athletics play in the social development of high-schoolers.

“That’s an important part of athletics, especially the fall sports,” Slater said. “You come in before school starts and you form that bond with teammates so that when classes start, you have a place and people you can go to right away. That’s huge for a lot of incoming freshmen.”

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