TAMPA — The “Guv’na of Lutz” is actually a basketball player who married a soccer player and now runs a soccer academy with plans to expand.
Sure, “Guv’na” is an honorary title, but Jerome Smalls has made a big impact since moving to the Tampa Bay area to escape the cold of Philadelphia. He played basketball at Slippery Rock State in Pennsylvania, earned his masters degree and then came to Florida with his wife, Marchele, a former soccer player at the University of Tennessee.
Smalls took a job teaching special education in the Hillsborough County school system and also coached basketball at Middleton High, but he wanted something different. With his wife’s help, he formed Soccer Gemz, a unique soccer academy.
The kids in Soccer Gemz practice at the Lutz First Baptist Church, 18116 U.S. 41, on Saturday mornings. A second school opened at a church in Ruskin.
What makes it different? For one, Smalls accepts kids as young as 18 months. At that age, he said, there’s no emphasis on winning since most of the kids are more focused on running around without falling down.
He also wants to be more than just a soccer or basketball coach.
“I believe my wife and I can make a difference,” Smalls said. “I always wanted to run a business and our curriculum follows some high standards. We coach, but we do it with fun.”
Smalls has full-time coaches and volunteers to help run the school. Right now, he has nearly 100 kids in his Lutz academy and 28 at the new Ruskin facility. He has a 12-to-1 child/coach ratio, so everyone gets the proper instruction. All coaches go through a training program, and several of them are interns from the University of South Florida.
The coaches are taught to keep it fun. Smalls said he doesn’t just drop a bag of soccer balls on the field and let the kids kick away. Instead, he offers drills involving things like hula-hoops, beanbags and tunnels. Anything to make it fun.
Part of the success of the school has come from his Mommy and Me program for toddlers, where every kid gets a soccer ball of their own to kick around.
“We kind of try to do everything opposite of what everyone else does,” Smalls said. “A lot of camps don’t get that the attention span of kids is very small. We work on the basic fundamentals like dribbling and shooting, but we also have the fun drills. No kid wants to stand in line for a chance to kick the ball.”
Soccer Gemz is approaching its second year in Lutz and Smalls said it might be time to expand.
“It might be time to add another sport, but first I want to perfect what we are doing here,” Smalls said. “I love working with kids and I only left the school system because I wanted to follow my passion.”
As far as being the “Guv’na” is concerned, Smalls said the main goal is to raise money for charities. He always has a Thanksgiving food drive and is holding a run this summer to help with cystic fibrosis.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I help other people. It’s a great thing.”
To learn more, call (813) 421-5203 or visit soccer gemz.com.