Liz Hastings (Submitted photo)

Almost exactly one year ago, Auburn Mass Daily ran a headline, “Hastings named TOPS Coach of the year”.  In a sort of ‘Groundhog Day’ moment, we are running a nearly identical headline, except this time it is a younger Hastings. Liz Hastings has been named the 2016 TOPS Buddy of the Year by Massachusetts Youth Soccer.

The TOPSoccer Buddy of the Year Award is given annually “to an individual for his or her extraordinary accomplishments as a TOPSoccer Buddy, and who has demonstrated patience, understanding, dependability, and compassion”, according to Mass Youth Soccer.

Liz began volunteering with United Soccer of Auburn’s TOPS when Dan Hastings -Liz’ father – initiated the program in 2012.

“I started when I was in 8th grade” said Liz Hastings. “My father [Dan] was planning to use high school and college-age Buddies, but needed more volunteers and I said I would be happy to do it.”

TOPSoccer is a community-based training and team placement program for young athletes with disabilities, organized by youth soccer association volunteers. US Youth Soccer created the program to bring the opportunity of learning and playing soccer to any boy or girl, who has a mental or physical disability.

There are now TOPS programs in all 50 states, including 7 Central MA communities.  Holden, Millbury, Worcester, Clinton, Blackstone, and West Boylston also run TOPS.  Statewide, there are over 40 TOPS programs and some 500 “buddy” coaches.

In the TOPS program, players are typically paired with a Buddy Coach, providing the player with a one- on-one experience.

Liz Hastings (far right) works with a soccer buddy and fellow TOPS buddy coaches (photo Jeff LaBonte)

Some 80% of the TOPS participants fall on the autism spectrum, and the 1:1 model offers a way for the players to benefit from the game of soccer while minimizing some of the sensory obstacles present in a traditional soccer team approach, according to U.S. Youth Soccer.

Liz is a 2016 graduate of Auburn High. Now a first-year Music Therapy major at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA, Liz continues to come home on weekends to take part in the program, bringing with her more recruits from campus. Liz is a vocalist, and is learning new instruments as part of her studies.

“I am learning guitar and piano for my major. I’m also learning ukulele, but that is on my own” she added.

Asked about her commitment to TOPS, Liz explains that she is motivated by watching the players grow.

“My favorite thing is watching them develop” said Hastings. “There was one player who had motor skills, but would limp a lot, and not really run. He walked around most of the time. But he had the greatest personality, and through the TOPS program he began running and using those muscles more, and it was great to watch him grow.”

Hastings points out that TOPS doesn’t only benefit the players.

“The parents are so great and so supportive. They are so appreciative that Dad [Dan] started this program” said Hastings. “It’s great to see them at the sessions on the sidelines, encouraging their children, and talking to each other while the kids play with their buddies.”

Liz has had the same primary buddy since she started with the program, so naturally there is a strong attachment there. But she enjoys working with all the players.

“Sometimes my buddy is not at a session, so I will work with another buddy, or circulate and work with small groups so I get to know all the coaches and players” said Hastings.

Fall 2016 TOPS Coaches (Photo Jeff LaBonte)

According to her father and TOPS Program Coordinator, Dan Hastings, Liz is active in the TOPS program as well as other school, community and church programs. She has also been integral in growing the program over the past five years.

“While in high school, Liz was the leading recruiter of Buddies for the program, as well as a trainer each season” said Dan Hastings.

Liz will be honored at the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Appreciation and Awards Dinner on January 28 at the Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg. It will be her second trip to the award dinner; last January Dan Hastings received the Mass Youth Soccer TOPS Coach of the Year award.

On the recognition that United Soccer of Auburn’s TOPS has received these past two years Liz says, “It’s definitely an awesome program!”