BETHANY - The sport of soccer has seen tremendous growth during the past 40 years.
In fact, to hear John Cunningham tell it, soccer is as hot as it's ever been.
''And this year is really important,'' he said. ''We have World Cup qualifications and some of the power countries, like Brazil, are getting strong again.''
Cunningham coached men's soccer at Bethany for 32 years before retiring in 2001. But even though he's not toiling the sidelines anymore for the Bison, Cunningham is still playing a prominent role in helping develop future players through his annual camps.
The Bethany Soccer Camps, in their 40th year, are set to begin in a few weeks and Cunningham is just as eager as he was in 1974 to spread his joy for the game.
''I knew that part of my responsibilities as a college coach was to give something back,'' Cunningham said. ''We started (the camps) to provide services for the local soccer communities that didn't have high school soccer at that time.''
Conducted at Bethany College, the camp's first week, July 7-11, is for boys and girls ages 8-13. The second week, July 14-18, has high school girls as the focus. The week of July 28-Aug. 1 is geared toward high school boys.
In addition, there will be clinics for younger kids July 8-10.
Cunningham is again overseeing the camps with longtime coordinator Frank Christy.
''He was my first All-American in 1974 and that's the same year we started the camps,'' Cunningham said of Christy.
''We had some of the best soccer in the United States right here in West Virginia in those days and no high school soccer in the state. That's one of the reasons we started the camps - to enhance that.''
When the camps began, soccer was just starting to take over nationally. The passage of Title IX gave birth to numerous women's programs. In future years, the North American Soccer League and Major Indoor Soccer League helped spur the sports growth, along with a plethora of youth programs.
''There was a real surge through the 1980s and 90s,'' Cunningham recalled. ''Parents became interested in getting their children involved in good athletic programs and off the streets.''
Cunningham has seen the growth in his own family. Six of his seven grandchildren play, including Linsly's Taylor Cunningham and Cory Cunningham.
The camp has grown from about 33 participants the first year to roughly 800 for the three weeks.
''I've tried to calculate how many campers I've had ... and it's in the thousands,'' Cunningham said. ''It's really been a positive thing.''
Now, Cunningham is seeing a second, and sometimes third, generation of campers come through.
Case in point, the Regan family. Jim Regan the legendary coach at Wheeling Jesuit University, played for Cunningham at Bethany. And through the years, Jim's children attended the camp. Today, Jim's son, Sean is Bethany's coach. He will be one of the instructors along with the Bison's Peter Parakakis.
Jim Regan will be on hand to provide his knowledge, too, along with Cardinals' women's coach Carrie Hanna.
North Carolina men's coach Frankie Taal will also instruct. Wheeling Park girls' coach Aubrey Taylor - who played against Cunningham during his days at Alderson-Broaddus - has also been a friend to the camp.
''We have a number of kids that get involved from the Ohio Valley,'' Cunningham noted. ''But the majority of kids we get are from Western Pennsylvania.''