Girls' soccer brings coach closer to game

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

September 05, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

NEITHER THE new team Denise Donovan is coaching as the fall soccer season begins nor even her players' parents could relate to some of her thoughts during a visit last week to Covenant Park.

After six years of teaching boys the sport she had been forced to shelve but never forgot loving, Donovan is coaching girls for the first time.

Give or take some months, the girls on her seven-a-side travel team, who delighted in exploring the new Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County field complex off Centennial Lane, are about 9 years old.

"They're so fortunate," Donovan said, her voice a bit wistful a day or so after that early evening at the $5 million, eight-field complex off Centennial Lane. "They know it's new, and they accept it as, I guess, as kind of normal, but ... "

Right there, Donovan's thoughts diverged from the upbeat reality her young charges will be experiencing as their soccer careers blossom. What she said next offers insight that might help non-soccer readers understand why today's SAC-HC members and the organization's thousands of alumni are so happy as it formally dedicates its new facility.

"When I began playing soccer - I was in the fourth grade - there just wasn't much available for girls, anywhere, except maybe in Northern Virginia," Donovan said. "I mean, we were given the uniforms boys' teams wore the year before. But SAC did give us the chance to play. And we played all over. I remember going to tournaments in New York and Canada.

"I started playing when [SAC-HC] was pretty much new and kept playing until I was 19. In fact, I still have a [souvenir] patch from the second [Memorial Day weekend] Invitational Tournament, and I'm pretty sure I played in the first one, too.

"So the club means a lot to me," said the Columbia native, a home-improvement retailing manager who lives in the town's oldest neighborhood, Bryant Woods.

Donovan is 41. That means, however, that what her young girls accept as athletic reality is newer and fresher than they'll ever suspect.

When Donovan entered the all-girls Seton-Keough High School in Southwest Baltimore, she found no soccer team.

"I lobbied all four years there for a team, and I played basketball and some tennis - but always, soccer for SAC," she said. "Soccer was my year-round thing."

A year after she graduated, Donovan said, Seton-Keough fielded its first soccer team.

No colleges that Donovan wanted to attend offered women's soccer, which sounds strange now, when virtually every college offers the sport - and many others - to women.

What a difference two decades have made - from the time Donovan dropped soccer for lack of options until now, when her 9-year-old girls love the idea that a new, state-of-the-art soccer complex is special because it's their club's, their own.

Most of those girls know from television that large numbers of women competed in Athens - about 40 percent of the athletes there, though many nations do little to foster or encourage sports for girls.

Those girls have professional women players to emulate - Mia Hamm, certainly, but also Abby Wambach and the new breed of American women savoring an Olympic gold medal.

Donovan didn't know of any women players when she was 9 or 10. She came along at a time that was disheartening for most would-be female athletes. She returned to soccer, in fact, reluctantly as a recreation-level coach about six years ago, when her son, now 12, began playing.

But Donovan said helping coach her son's first team quickly rekindled her passion for the game. Now she's working through the licensing process that soccer uses to improve coaching nationwide. She encourages other women to try coaching, too. "I thought, `Why haven't I been doing this forever?'" she said.

Donovan decided last spring that her son would benefit from male coaching and that she should pursue a new course, too.

"I really liked coaching the boys, but I was dying to coach girls," she said. "I had so many coaches growing up who were such role models in my life, so I want to be like that. I want to give back, and I'm finding it very rewarding."

SAC-HC and its new complex will provide Donovan more chances to give back than she suspected. The organization has more than 6,000 players, about 40 percent of them girls.

Covenant Park means Donovan's girls won't have to play on second-rate fields. They won't get hand-me-down uniforms, either.

Call the writer at 410-332- 6525 or send e-mail to lowell. sunderland@baltsun.com.

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