Outdoors: Goaling for it

The day before my interview with the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association for a coach position, I got hit in the face playing ultimate Frisbee. It hurt as only a flying disk can when it careens into your cheekbone at high speed, but my concern was the interview. Looking back on it, I realize that my battle scar may actually have helped: I probably made an impression in my skirt and dressy blouse, with a bluish-purple bruise across my face.

After a pretty standard coaching interview, the program administrator asked if I understood that the girls on the Go To Goal! outreach team are tough. Already halfway out the door, I responded that I play soccer with tough people and that I’ve worked with kids before. But I didn’t realize what he meant by “tough.”

The self-proclaimed Battle Divas are from Isaac Dickson Elementary. ABYSA pays for their registration, uniforms and equipment (which the club gets at cost from Arsenal Athletics at the Asheville Mall). We provide transportation for the twice-weekly practices and Saturday games. Nominated by their teachers, these third- through fifth-graders are fed healthy snacks and taught “life skills” (everything from journal writing to health education).

Stacey Enos, the program’s founder, is one of my personal heroes. A former U.S. player, she’s Warren Wilson College’s athletics director. My girls idolize Stacey. They sing songs with her that they’ve made up about Subway sandwiches; they ride in her car; they show her dances they’ve created. She keeps their picture in her office alongside photos of herself competing internationally and of college teams she’s coached.

Coaching the Battle Divas represents a totally different set of challenges. One problem I don’t have is over-involved parents yelling, “Kick the ball hard!” “What’s wrong with you?” “Run faster!” and “Put her back in the game, coach!” In fact, we get very few parents at all. We have several mothers who haven’t missed a game all season, but you don’t have the army of golden-retriever-tethering, cooler-toting, umbrella-shaded, track-suit-sporting soccer families that string out along the other teams’ sidelines.

The only people our girls can try to make proud of them are me, the assistant coach and their teammates. Yet they play hard the whole game when there are no subs on the bench. They play through asthma attacks, sprained wrists and stomachaches, throwing themselves around like Batman. They do it because they’re tough.

A couple of seasons ago, a “spy” I’d planted in the bleachers reported that the other team’s parents had been saying the Go To Goal! girls didn’t belong in the league. This was after we’d suffered a string of losses, and it was frustrating to hear, especially since most teams and coaches are so encouraging. That made it all the more satisfying when our girls beat that particular team the next time around.

These girls are tough but also girly. They love pink, Justin Bieber and scented lotion; they sometimes cry at practices. They like to dance, and they don’t want to play outside when it’s raining because it’ll mess up their hair. They obsess about Silly Bandz bracelets, and they’re a little bit insecure. They’re seeking role models whose success doesn’t depend on a size 0 designer wardrobe and a voice synthesizer.

When we took them to a Mars Hill College women’s soccer game, one of the Divas asked Joshua Jackson, my assistant coach, “Why’s there only one black girl out there?” The question surprised me, because they rarely play a team with more than one African-American player.

“I don’t know,” Josh replied. “But that’s one of the things we’re working on fixing with you girls.”

Walking out onto the bright-green turf at the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex, you can easily spot the Go To Goal! girls among the hundreds of kids dotting the sprawling fields, because they’re usually the only team boasting mostly African-American players.

Most of my girls are still years away from middle school, and their dreams concern handsome vampires, pre-practice chocolate snacks and marrying Justin Bieber. I don’t think they realize playing soccer could help pay for college, though that’s my dream for them.

For now, however, I’m content to watch them score their first goals and actually use the step-over move or wall pass we’ve been working on all season. And if you see them out at JBL on a Saturday, take a second and give a war cry for the Battle Divas. They’re tough, but they could use your support.

— Asheville resident Felice Lopez Bell teaches at Mars Hill College and Blue Ridge Community College.

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