Amateur squad provides outlet
Since graduating from Miami University in 2007, Ryan McClay has played professional indoor soccer in Cincinnati and Chicago, for the Canton-based Ohio Vortex of the Professional Arena Soccer League and for various teams throughout Columbus.
Despite competing for a series of teams in large cities, the 2002 Canal Winchester High School graduate is far from disappointed that his newest venture will have him playing in an eastern Ohio community whose population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is about 25,000.
McClay was one of the first three signees of Zanesville Athletic FC. The outdoor team is getting ready to begin play in the Midwest-Great Lakes Conference of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), which holds its season from May through August.
"I'm excited that there's a new avenue for players that are older," McClay said. "It should also be great for the community of Zanesville to see a higher level of competition. Personally, it's a big step for my playing career because it might lead to a career in professional soccer."
On Jan. 13, McClay, Colin Combs and Tyler Graziani became the first players to sign with the team.
A 2011 Pickerington North graduate, Combs is a sophomore defender for the University of Mount Union. Graziani is an Imperial, Pa., native who recently finished his first season with Xavier University.
Because players are not paid by the team, collegians are allowed by the NCAA to participate for an amateur team such as Zanesville Athletic after May 1.
The other teams in the Midwest-Great Lakes Conference are AFC Cleveland, Detroit City FC, the Erie (Pa.) Admirals, FC Buffalo, Great Binghamton (N.Y.) FC and the Michigan FC Spartans.
There are 47 teams among the nine divisions of the NPSL.
Zanesville Athletic is owned by Josh Stocker, who was an assistant at Wittenberg University last fall and is on staff as a coach with the Club Ohio program. He previously worked as an assistant at Otterbein, Hilliard Bradley and Canal Winchester.
Stocker became the owner of Zanesville Athletic in December, one month after it officially joined the NPSL.
The team is coached by Brandon Ponchak, a McCon-nelsville native who has four years of college coaching experience, according to the team's website.
"(Zanesville is) a smaller community, but we've already had a tremendous amount of grass-roots support," Stocker said. "Our main goal is to provide another platform to play soccer for a mixture of young adults and amateur players. The stadium has to be a certain size in this league and they only hire the highest quality referees."
Zanesville is scheduled to play its first game May 10 at FC Buffalo. Its first home game will be May 19 against AFC Cleveland at the Maysville Athletic Complex located at Zanesville Maysville Local Schools.
The club is planning to release season-ticket package offers over the coming weeks.
Single-game tickets will be $5 for adults, $3 for students and free for children 8 and younger.
The winner of the games between Zanesville and AFC Cleveland will be awarded a Presidential Cup. Zanesville will play at Cleveland on June 7.
"The other teams in our conference have been established for a couple years, so teams like Detroit City FC draw around 1,500 people for a game," Stocker said. "We're being cautiously optimistic and would be ecstatic if we got 500 to 750 people for a game, but I really wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the season we were closer to 1,000. We are going to be located in Zanesville, but we will have an impact in Columbus."
Zanesville will hold a tryout from 4 to 6 p.m. March 24 that will cost $40.
Stocker hopes the team will have about 30 players by the time the season starts.
According to its website, the NPSL is the successor to the Men's Premier Soccer League that was formed in 2002. The league, which is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, strives to provide an "extremely competitive league structure" that will be a "showcase for players who aspire to move to the professional level."
According to McClay, the quality of competition in the NPSL would make it the "fourth division" behind Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League.
"I'm 28 years old, and I know when I'm 40 or 50 I'm going to look back and wish I still had these young legs," McClay said. "Josh is also a coach with Club Ohio, so he's got a lot of connections and I've been trying to talk to some players around here about trying out. I know (Ponchak) is pretty involved in the Zanesville area. I'm going to be going down to the Zanesville area and reaching out. I'm really excited to see if we can get some 19- to 21-year-olds and get some youth on this team."
Combs falls under that category.
As a senior for Pickerington North in 2010, he had seven goals and five assists as the Panthers went 14-4-1 and were a Division I district runner-up.
Although Combs did not appear in a game for Mount Union as a freshman in 2011, he played in all 16 games last fall as the Purple Raiders went 4-8-4.
"(Stocker) has been sending out emails to college coaches and, when I saw it, I decided to try out," Combs said. "I was looking forward to getting some playing time over the summer and I actually have had a couple (college) teammates play for another team in the (NPSL) and they enjoyed it. They said it's competitive and that it's a good league.
"(Zanesville) is not too far from my (hometown) and I think a lot of people within the Zanesville area could come out for the team."
Stocker is a 2001 Canton GlenOak graduate who has been living in central Ohio since graduating from Miami in 2005. McClay, who became friends with Stocker in college, believes he is the right person to lead the organization.
"We are setting up soccer camps in the Zanesville and Marietta areas and our players are going to work those camps, so they're going to be able to earn money," Stocker said. "Our main goal is to be a positive influence on the community and hopefully inspire the next generation of young soccer players."