When going gets cold, AIS soccer gets going The truly dedicated love winter league

February 07, 1993|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,Contributing Writer

The air is frigid. The wind bone-chilling. The ground frozen solid.

And the bench aluminum.

No one ever said that playing outdoor soccer in the dead of winter would be comfortable.

For players on 11 Association of Independent Schools girls soccer teams, however, dealing with the raw side of Mother Nature has become a way of life. While their fall counterparts often are graced with warm, sunny days, winter soccer players thrive when the thermometer takes a dive.

"You walk out wearing leggings, turtlenecks, ear warmers and five coats, and the kids love it," said St. Paul's coach Karen McKeon. "For somebody to play and run around in 30-degree weather, they have to love it."

In a recent game at McDonogh, most spectators watched from their heated cars parked at either end of the field, while only the players, coaches and a handful of parka-clad fans braved the 15-degree wind chill to watch from the sidelines.

With the field frozen, players, unable to dig their cleats into the turf, often slipped and slid across the grass.

And the ball was as hard as a block of ice.

"It stings when it hits you," said McDonogh halfback Adriana Matesic.

But a little bruise or head cold isn't enough to keep them from playing the sport they love. After all, 10 years ago the players asked administrators for field space to play after-school soccer.

St. Paul's athletic director Ophelia Hollingshead said what started as an after-school club soon grew into a competitive sport, as more and more girls became interested.

For most AIS schools, limited field space and an even more limited pool of student-athletes made competing against fall field hockey,

tennis and cross-country teams an unrealistic endeavor, while lacrosse and softball dominated in the spring.

So instead, the schools chose to compete in the only season they could -- the winter.

The game is every bit as challenging and competitive as its fall counterpart, with a few notable exceptions that vary with the weather.

"The main difference is the temperature and field conditions," said Brenda Gelston, executive director of the Baltimore Board of Officials for Women's Soccer.

But Hollingshead said that only a handful of games have had to be canceled in the past five years because of poor field conditions.

It's when the field is covered with snow, however, that players say makes the game even more fun.

One team especially fond of it is McDonogh. With four straight trips to the A Division title game, the Eagles, as the only team in the league to also compete in the fall, enjoy their success over two seasons.

But for co-coach Ted Scocos, winning games is only a small part of the winter experience.

"I've played games in six inches of snow," said Scocos. "We played a game over at Friends a couple years ago when half the field was covered with four inches of snow, and the other half was covered with sheeted ice.

"The team playing on the icy half had the advantage since they could shoot their shots 60 or 70 yards toward the goal."

McKeon said that a big difference in the winter game is that poor field conditions can negate any skill advantage a team may have, leaving hustle and endurance as the deciding factors.

"We have skills," McKeon said, "but the conditions are usually so bad that the kids can't use them."

And that's just fine with the players.

"That's the challenge of it all," said Oldfields' Alice Fendley. "It's great, especially when it's soggy and rainy and you just slide across the field."

The game also provides girls with a rare opportunity to get physical.

"It's the only sport where girls can bump and shove each other around, and I think that's great," said Hollingshead. "Girls need a sport with physical contact."

For those away from the contact, however, 90 minutes on the bench can seem like an eternity . . . inside a freezer.

Players bundle, huddle, run around the bench -- anything to stay warm. McDonogh goalie Lauren Mishner knows all the best techniques.

"You just try and jump up and down and wave your hands around," said Mishner. "It's hard to keep warm out there, but you can usually find some way."

The sport has gained popularity in recent years, serving as an alternative for girls who want to play a sport but don't like basketball.

Gelston said that it has become more popular than school administrators ever envisioned.

Now all but one school has a junior-varsity team, and most have freshman and middle-school programs.

"I think the interest is a firm commitment by the girls," said Hollingshead, "and I don't see it diminishing at all."

In fact, she said that some schools soon may have to find additional fields to accommodate the growing number of players.

For them, no other sport will do.

"It's cold, but it's soccer," said McDonogh sweeper Deborah Hantman. "I don't like playing basketball, so why not play the sport I like? It's still fun, and it's still soccer."

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