Virgen: Pilot Cup offers a unique experience

John Curtis, a Daily Pilot reader, left a comment recently on our Facebook page that pretty much sums up this week's Daily Pilot Cup.

He posted: "We are the only ones to have this tournament type with just elementary schools and kids getting to play with their friends … one GREAT week!"

One great week, indeed.

The 14th annual Daily Pilot Cup youth soccer tournament ends with Championship Sunday. The kids — boys and girls grades third through sixth from Newport-Mesa area elementary schools — have played throughout the week, vying for the cup in gold, silver and bronze divisions.

For most of the children, this is an end-of-the-school-year-type treat. The teams are made up of friends and classmates.

"You can't diminish the pride you get for playing for your school," said tournament director Kirk McIntosh, who created the tournament. "Most of the kids in soccer play on club teams, all-star teams, but that's not necessarily their best friends."

I'm not sure many thought the tournament would become this big when it started in 2000, when it resurrected from the tournament that had been known as the Lions Cup.

Back then, when yours truly began working at the Daily Pilot, the Pilot Cup had around 30 teams.

Last year, there were 216 teams, the most in tournament history.

This year, there are 209 teams, marking the first time the tournament has not grown with regard to participation. In 2011, there were 207 teams.

If you've been near the Jack Hammett Sports Complex, or Costa Mesa High School this week, there doesn't seem to be fewer people than last year.

There are people from all over the Newport-Mesa area who come to see the children play their little hearts out.

Would you believe even Kobe Bryant has showed up the past two years? He's a Harbor Day fan, as his daughter plays on a team for the school.

McIntosh said he's seen others who come to watch, even though their kids aren't in the tournament. They want to see the purity of sport. Sure, there have been some bad moments of unruly conduct or poor sportsmanship, but for the most part there has been an extraordinary atmosphere.

It's hard to imagine another tournament as unique.

"I've been coaching for 20 years and no other tournament has the feeling as this one," McIntosh said. "It's our community and it's like everyone is involved. The whole community takes pride in this event. Not just a few people, the entire community. They embrace this now."

It's safe to say that the Pilot Cup's history is rich. Jack McBean, now on the Los Angeles Galaxy, played in the tournament for Mariners Christian. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. men's national team coach, volunteered as a coach for Newport Heights in 2008.

Yet for all the history, it's hard to match what occurs on Championship Sunday: all-out effort from the kids, strong support from friends and parents, and more joy after the games when the champions accept their trophies to keep at their respective schools.

McIntosh likes to see a circle form on the field, creating a rainbow with all the bright-colored Pilot Cup T-shirts gathered together.

"Everybody pats me on the back for doing a good job with the tournament, but it's certainly more than just me," McIntosh said.

Pam Garrett is a key volunteer, McIntosh said. She is the main person who enters the scores online for the Pilot Cup website.

It doesn't seem too long ago when McIntosh and the Pilot sports staff recorded the results by hand and relied on phones.

"She's the one doing it all," McIntosh said. "Everyone singles me out, but she is there throughout the whole thing.

"We have a terrific core of volunteers in our area. Some of the referees are there every single day. Some do two or three games each day. Jeff Grant, Phil Garrett and Juan Hernandez to name a few and several others."

All the volunteers appear to have the common mission of maintaining that unique feel of the tournament that has made it a big-time community event.

STEVE VIRGEN is the sports editor. Reach him at steve.virgen@latimes.com or call (714) 966-4616.

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