Whidbey Island’s resident “soccer guy” is officially the recipient of a statewide award.
Coupeville resident Mark Helpenstell was named 2022’s male soccer player of the year by the Washington State Adult Soccer Association earlier this year.
With more than three decades of volunteering in the Whidbey soccer scene in various capacities under his belt, Helpenstell said the best part of the game is the connection it facilitates with other people.
Though Helpenstell is now known as “Mr. Soccer” on Whidbey Island, he didn’t grow up playing the sport. Helpenstell ran cross country, swam and played basketball while growing up in Idaho but wouldn’t play soccer until he went to college in Minnesota.
He had always been intrigued by the game, he said, and learned the basics his freshman year. According to him, his collegiate athletic career was less than stellar.
“There were about five of us on that team that were training dummies, you know, for the guys that knew what they were doing,” he said.
It would be a while before soccer would become a part of his life again. Upon earning his degree in geology, he returned home to Idaho to farm. After a brief stint in Utah, he landed a job at Boeing and moved to Clinton with his then-wife and stepdaughter in 1985. Around two years later, he joined the Snohomish County Adult Soccer Association.
A group of players from the island formed a team in the league. Around the same time, Helpenstell began coaching.
He coached at South Whidbey High School from the beginning of the school’s soccer program and stayed there for around 15 years. During that time, he said he would accept anyone who wanted to play, and the program eventually had enough players for a varsity team, a junior varsity team and even a C squad.
He coached recreational club soccer, too, and had the opportunity to coach his own children and stepchildren. Helpenstell estimated he must have coached a couple hundred kids during his coaching years.
Tisa Seely, Helpenstell’s wife of 16 years, explained that soccer became a method for Helpenstell to connect with kids who needed help. Sports provided a structure that a lot of kids weren’t getting elsewhere. Helpenstell said he hopes that through his coaching, he taught his players skills they could use both in soccer and in life.
“I love the game, but the game really is the vehicle for connecting with people,” he said.
Helpenstell has also served in an administrative capacity on various boards, including eight years on the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation board. He and other volunteers built the soccer field above Castle Park, and with that same group of volunteers, Helpenstell initiated the weekly pickup game that is still ongoing on the South End after 30 years. The pickup game takes place most Saturdays at 2 p.m. at the sports complex on Langley Road.
At some point during his coaching years, Helpenstell got his referee license, and he now regularly referees high school and club games on the island. Though he is no longer a coach, refereeing is still rife with teaching moments, he said, particularly with parents who get feisty on the sidelines.
When a parent or other onlooker starts to complain, Helpenstell said he has no qualms about stopping the game to chat with them about what they saw or explain what happened. If this tactic doesn’t calm them down, Helpenstell has a special stack of yellow and red cards just for parents that contain information about how they can acquire a referee license of their own.
Helpenstell, a man of varied interests, keeps up a number of pastimes unrelated to soccer, too. His Coupeville home, where he and Seely moved a few years ago after retiring, doubles as something of an animal sanctuary; he and Seely have rescued dogs, cats, donkeys and even a mule, and leave feed out for birds and squirrels. Helpenstell runs a dog training business that he referred to as his “retirement hobby.”
He is also a musician; he plays in a local ukulele group and is a member of the beloved Whidbey sea shanty group, the Shifty Sailors.
But of course, he still makes time to play regularly in the Snohomish County Adult Soccer Association. He’s been known to be out on the field as few as 10 days after surgery, much to his doctors’ dismay, he joked.
Connecting with people continues to be the best part of playing soccer for Helpenstell. At age 65, he still plays on the “over 40” team, because some of the players he coached back in the day have now surpassed that age threshold and are on the team with him.
His former players will also turn up periodically at the weekly pickup game. To this day, many of them still call him “Coach” when they see him.
“For me at this point, the most fun of it is seeing the kids that are coming home,” he said. “Every now and then, I get a kid that shows up that I haven’t seen since they graduated twenty-something years ago, and that’s pretty special.”
In January, Helpenstell was awarded player of the year in Washington state. He is humble about this accolade, suggesting that there perhaps weren’t many other nominees, but Seely maintains that he’s earned it through his decades of service.