On my knees, burying a rose bush, my train of thought suddenly derailed. I thought about something I had shared celebrating International Women’s Day. A memory formed in my head. I’m sure it is a symptom of my advancing age…or the Commodores singing about a “Brick House” over my ear buds. I went back to the future to the early Eighties and a season I titled, “The Season of the Girl….”
I spent most of my forty-five years in athletics coaching young men. There were two occasions I was called upon to coach young women. One was thrust upon me by a lawsuit…not against me, the other a favor to a fellow coach. Both were learning opportunities for the male chauvinist that used to be me.
In the middle Seventies, I accepted the position of head boys soccer coach at the high school where I taught. At the time Mauldin High School was as country as a cow patty and the kids that came out for soccer had no idea what soccer was. Most were American football players looking for a ball to kick around and a body to run over.
The appointment was my first head coaching position at the varsity level. It should have been a joyous occasion. The culmination of hard work and accomplishment but it wasn’t. I was a warm body, available, and could drive a bus. I also needed the six-hundred-dollar stipend the position paid.
Soccer was a sport I had never played or seen played which was not unusual for the time. I was a blank slate as were most of my players, especially the first year. The first year I only had two players who knew how the game should be played, the rest looked for a body to block and toe kicked the ball as far as they could. Even they knew more than their coach. Truly the blind leading the blind.
We jokingly referred to the game as “communist kickball” which for us was not far from the truth…the kickball part. We were starting from scratch. The first soccer match I saw was the first soccer match I coached in. It was the same for most of my players.
This was when Neanderthals roamed the earth before video tape and well before YouTube. There was nothing available for me to “research”. No access to computer vids or DVDs with instructions on “how to change the pull cord in a lawn mower” or “beginning brain surgery.” None existed on soccer either, they hadn’t been invented.
Somehow, I learned. Like the “blind hog who root hogged until he found an acorn” we tied our first match. I was a blind and stupid hog, but I did root-hog hard to get ahead of the curve. Luckily, it was a shallow curve. For seven years, especially the last four, we were one of the best teams in the state with many acorns to be found.
In the early Eighties the South Carolina General Assembly steepened my curve. Our General Assembly finally decided to acknowledge Title IX, enacted in 1972, but only because a court case forced their hand. The legislative train runs slowly in the South when it comes to equal rights, and the politicians had drug their feet until just before the season began. Avoiding the lawsuit, our governing body, The SC High School League, decided women would have a voice in high school soccer, but it would not be a chorus of voices, it would be a solo.
The chickens had come home to roost and we were told that for one year, until women’s teams could be formed the next year, girls could try out for our men’s soccer teams. It was a hollow victory with only one school in the state with a woman on their team. We had just gone coed, and the Mauldin High School soccer program would become a very tiny footnote in history.
Girls couldn’t compete with guys, could they? I was about to find out. Laena and Cathy showed up for the first day of practice along with a couple of dozen of their male counterparts. Too many bodies vying for twenty-two positions. Cuts would have to be made. Cutting a team is never enjoyable but this one had the added effect of a feminist’s minefield.
I sought knowledge from our girl’s PE teacher and primary girl’s coach, a wonderful old battle-axe who if she reads this will smile at the reference…I hope. I say battle-axe with all the love and respect I can muster. In 1980 I was terrified of her and as I’ve found it the later years, my fear was unjustified.
Seeking understanding of the feminine beast, I asked, “Anything you can tell me about coaching girls?”
She gave me a squinty eyed look, and in her gravely voice minced no words, “Miller…you ain’t stupid. You coach ‘em like boys.” I was fairly sure the first statement was untrue which made me question the second.
As I watched practice, attempting to evaluate the talent, I was reasonably sure Lena could make the team. She was athletic…I’m sure in my mind I added, “for a girl”. Laena was a blond Norwegian who had moved to Mauldin from one of the Northern states with ice and lakes and had played soccer most of her life. She had a skill set on par if not better than most of the men. She didn’t have the speed or strength but was smart enough to read what was occurring and put herself where she needed to be for success. She was also a tough nut who played with a chip on her shoulder.
Cathy was a hardnosed goalkeeper but didn’t have the quickness or strength to compete with the men. I thought I was about to step into the Mars-Venus minefield, but she took herself out of the mix. Cathy was smart and read the writing on the wall and approached me about becoming a manager and bookkeeper. I was happy to oblige and happy to keep her.
There were other cow patties lying about waiting to be stepped in, as with any team, men, women, or coed. These were different. Slapping players on the butt immediately went out the window along with certain language nuances. Being given homemade cookies before practice was a pleasing difference, not a cow patty at all.
As I look back, I smile because of the respect Laena earned from the men. It was earned and I include myself. Some of the more immature didn’t know how to act and quite a few got their noses out of joint. They were verbal out of my earshot in their criticism of “the girl” until she took them out with a hard tackle or hacked them up in a drill. After an early season discussion, Lena decided it would be best to take care of her own problems and she did…sometimes as violently as her Viking forefathers.
We did get our collective noses out of joint over our media coverage. During those days, soccer competed with basketball for newsprint with soccer coming in a distant second. When local news broke that Lena was the only girl participating in SC high school soccer, our coverage increased but it wasn’t about the team and Lena and I grew tired of answering the dreaded “What’s it like…” question.
In our first match, against our closest rival, when Laena went in the game it was as if someone had muted the volume until an opposing player took her down with a hard shoulder tackle. The poor boy. As play continued he stopped and offered her a hand, fine Southern gentleman that he was. She took it, and as quickly took him down with an illegal tackle that drew a warning from the official. She giggled as she ran back to her position in the midfield. She had made her point. Soccer players giggling? They shouldn’t giggle.
It was our best season, “the season of the girl”. Unless I’m confusing years, we were 13-3-3 and went on to win an Upper State Championship before falling in a close match in the State Championship. A memorable season by anyone’s standards. Lena was more than a team member. She was not a token and contributed many quality minutes. She was also a teacher because I learned a great deal. I learned not to coach them like men, or women, I learned to coach them like people.
My daughter went on to play soccer, also at Mauldin High School, a couple of decades later. I can’t help but think maybe we laid a little of the groundwork for her own State Championship in her “season of the girl”. She was the hard-nosed goalkeeper who made me cringe every time she came out to attack a break away. She turned out okay and lost no teeth. My grand daughter is now playing, hope she looses no teeth.
Athletics are important, no matter what the gender. Athletics teaches life. Hard work makes you better as both a player and a person. Players learn sacrifice, resilience, how to deal with success and failure, and how to play well with others. Athletics stresses taking worthwhile risks, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It teaches that in life, you won’t win all of the time and that’s okay.
Celebrate “the season of the girl”, Women’s History Month, and the International Women’s Day.
Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0jCNAuN3Z8dNPesZwZtTn0bQHkZG8G6HgAbbZlv-rpjKH_Cn4aPmvbZKA