Rea in for a challenge

There are at least three things you can count on each year at the Daily Pilot Cup, the annual youth soccer-palooza in Costa Mesa, which starts Tuesday.

The 12th annual soccer tournament, that features elementary school classmates teaming up, grows in numbers each year. This year there are 207 teams. That's roughly 3,100 kids running around the fields at the Costa Mesa Farm Complex, Costa Mesa High and Davis Elementary. Last year, there were 201 teams.

Another thing with the Daily Pilot Cup, you can always count on fun. The event usually brings the community together. The kids think of clever nicknames for each other. They play their hearts out and in the end some of them enjoy Championship Sunday, the final day of competition for the biggest prize.

And of course, there is Rea Elementary. The Sharks know about the big prize. They almost always win championships. In the past 11 years, they've won nine titles in the boys' fifth- and sixth-grade's highest level.

Rea is a sure thing. But not so fast. The giant could be slayed this year. The Sharks are vulnerable.

Usually, they have 80 kids come out for the boys' fifth- and sixth-grade teams. This year, there were 25, said Ryan Baker, who has coached teams at Rea for the past nine years. He said he had to recruit five others to play.

Rea's numbers are down because enrollment lowered, Baker said. Before, Rea was solely a school with third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Nearby schools Whittier and Pomona were kindergarten through third grade and fed kids into Rea as they got older, Baker said.

Now Rea, Whittier and Pomona are all K-6. The kids who were at Whittier and Pomona stayed there to complete their elementary school, Baker said. A few had the option to come to Rea and chose the Sharks, Baker said.

In Rea's heyday, the Sharks had six or seven teams on the boys' fifth- and sixth-grade level, competing in the gold, silver and bronze divisions. This year, they have two, one in the gold, coached by Baker, and the other in the silver division.

"[Winning the championship is] definitely going to be more challenging," said Baker, who has stressed to his players in the gold division that teams will be gunning for them. "Everyone loves to hate us. It's like everyone hates the Lakers or Duke. They want them to lose. They have to be ready. One bad game and we could be out of the tournament."

The disdain for Rea at the Pilot Cup is no joke. The Sharks have been accused of cheating, for stacking their teams. They just keep quiet and go about dominating the opposition.

Word has gotten out that Rea might not be as strong as years past. Baker works as a physical education teacher at Rea, Lincoln, Eastbluff and Sonora. He's heard the kids at the other schools say that this is the year that Rea will be dethroned. The Sharks have four straight titles in the boys' fifth- and sixth-grade gold division.

"They've been trying to get me to coach for them for years," Baker said. "Now they say this is the year to leave Rea."

Baker said he can't leave Rea because that's where he started. Of course winning also helps to keep him there. But Rea in the Daily Pilot Cup isn't always about winning.

Baker enjoys the purity for the game he sees while coaching the Rea kids. He got a kick out of watching the girls get all excited when their black T-shirts were passed out Friday. Baker estimated there are about 40 girls in the third and fourth grade at Rea, and 25 of them came out to play in the Daily Pilot Cup.

Teachers and coaches at Rea usually use the huge soccer tournament to motivate the children. If the kids get into trouble at school or miss assignments they will miss out playing in the Daily Pilot Cup.

When they do play, their coaches tell them to have fun.

"It's fun for the kids," Baker said of the Pilot Cup. "It's fun at Rea because we get a lot of kids who have never played soccer before. We introduce them to the game and to playing for a team."

But, yes, Rea wants to win. The Sharks want to keep the trophy at their school.

"That's what we want," Baker said. "You don't want to be in the newspaper if you're losing and we would be in the paper if we lost. That's what I told the kids. So let's not lose."

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