Female participation in sports, most notably in cross country and soccer, has increased over time. Long-term coaches have noticed jumps in participation from below 15 players to above 50 players on certain teams. (CONTRIBUTED BY ANSLEY WASHBURN)
Walk around the campus and you will see an abundance of female athletes, ranging from track phenoms to soccer superstars. However, turn the clocks back 19 years and athletic culture at the high school would be drastically different. As Brookline soccer coach Chan MacVeagh put it: “It is hard to imagine, but in 2002, it wasn’t really cool to be a female jock.”
The most extreme growth and change has occurred in the girls soccer and cross country programs. The girls varsity soccer team first reached the playoffs in 2011, and since then, they have consistently stayed competitive. The team finished the season second in their league. The girls cross country program has increased their numbers from a dozen to near fifty and steadily achieved success, winning their league and placing fourth in the state this year.
Rob Sprague, who is the former head coach of the girls varsity soccer team (GVS) and has coached in the soccer program for 12 years, said throughout the time he has been at the high school, the number of girls trying out for the program each season has increased tremendously.
“I remember when I first started, we never had cuts. In fact, sometimes we were short of players, and injuries gave us a big problem,” Sprague said. “Now, we’ve got somewhere between 75 to 80 girls, so that’s really changed quite a bit over the last 12 years.”
Coach Mike DeYoung, who has been at the high school for 19 years and is the head coach of the girls cross country program, said the number of girls in the program has also grown significantly compared to when he started in 2001.
“When I started, there were only 12 girls on the team,” DeYoung said. “This year, we had 44, and before [the] COVID-19 [pandemic], we had numbers in the low 50s for a couple of years in a row.”
The beginning of girls sports
During the 1980s, girls sports were beginning to rise in popularity. Growing participation and encouragement led to the success that continues in girls sports at the high school.
Associate Dean Lisa Redding, Class of ‘89, played on the girls softball team and competed with the swim team. Growing up in Boston and Cambridge, she never went to an elementary school in Brookline but found that participating in high school sports quickly integrated her into the community.
In 1988, the girls swim team, which Redding was a part of, won the championship title for the Suburban League. Redding said the ability to participate on a sports team, especially a winning one, influenced the way she thought about herself.
“In my mind, we were just so badass. We all felt like we were bigger than anything, walking around with our swim jackets, varsity jackets and such. It gave me, personally, and many I know, confidence. And being part of an athletic team and doing well is always a bonus,” Redding said.
Redding’s swim team also left their own mark on the high school’s history. In the 1980s, the pool water at the high school appeared green and Redding said the team viewed the color as their “signature”. On their way to one meet, athletes took a mason jar of their pool water, added green food coloring and upon arriving at the meet, they dumped the green water into the pool.
Redding said experiences like she had on the swim team created unity and bonding for girls teams.
“It’s just gotten better. I don’t remember ever having the spirit days and I feel like our young women are very much into those spirit days for unity. Sometimes the young men’s teams do that too, but there’s a bonding amongst young women in doing something like that,” Redding said.
According to Redding, her coaches provided her with the right balance of support, fun and challenge to make her successful in athletics and beyond.
“I cannot say enough about how much coaching matters. Of young women in particular, that coach really can make a difference. I think that the experience translates outside of the sport. If you are feeling self-worth, if you’re feeling high self-esteem, you can leave that environment and take that with you. I think that it goes further than a lot of people know or think,” Redding said.
While girls sports teams back when she was attending the high school were winning competitions, Redding said the current expansion and success of sports in Brookline is novel.
“Overall, our sports programs have totally raised their game. Every season we’re contenders with something. So that’s new,” Redding said.
Increase in participation and success
The changes in the success of the girls programs, particularly the cross country and soccer teams, did not happen overnight and can be attributed to a variety of factors.
According to MacVeagh, soccer culture has grown over time in Brookline as the girls program has developed. In the early years, the community was insular and made up of a few die-hard participants with ties to the broader soccer community. Gradually, the program grew because of the availability of playing opportunities. In 2011, when the girls program made the playoffs after a two decade drought, the soccer community expanded and transformed into its current form.
Cross country also experienced a growth in popularity in Brookline, especially in the late 1990s. The boys team began to dominate the Bay State League, winning meet after meet, and became ingrained within Brookline’s sports culture. The boys team has continued to be highly successful and the girls team is following in the larger program’s footsteps.
One of the reasons for the expansion of the soccer program is the growth of recreation and town soccer teams. When MacVeagh began coaching in 2001, the tryout structure didn’t select for the best players or give everyone a fair chance of making the top teams As a result, he worked with other coaches to change the format of the tryout.
“In 2001, if you were on the first team, you didn’t need to try out next year. You were just automatically on the first team again. And so even if they’re good second team players, they couldn’t get on to the first team,” MacVeagh said. “The tryouts discovered who the fastest person was, and who could throw or kick the ball the farthest, which doesn’t actually help you identify soccer players. So we changed that right at the beginning to actually have them play soccer.”
The restructuring not only allowed for mobility between different levels, but it increased the overall competitiveness of the program. According to MacVeagh, the athletes who are now good enough for varsity and junior varsity positions are a larger percentage of the program than in 2003. MacVeagh also said this higher caliber of athletes in competition for varsity spots allows for a constant cycle of evolution that improves the quality of the team.
“There’s no one who makes varsity who isn’t in shape and isn’t playing and doesn’t have all the good technique down,” MacVeagh said. “I don’t know if it’s gonna last forever, but it’s been five or six years now where they’re consistently one of the top four or five teams in the state.”
The next step to increasing the competitiveness of the girls soccer program was to provide players opportunities to practice in the off-season. MacVeagh and Sprague began a soccer club, called Chestnut Hill Club, for athletes to play in the months of March through June. Over the summer, MacVeagh also has an intense summer workout program that girls participate in.
“Chan camp is very word of mouth. Basically, everyone in the high school knows about it. And I actually send an email out every year saying, you shouldn’t do this, this is too hard. No one wants to get up at 6:45 a.m. all summer long, five days a week, and it’s 95 degrees and humid,” MacVeagh said. “Forty people come anyway and, weirdly, they seem to enjoy it.”
Like girls soccer, the cross country team has also done outreach to young athletes in elementary schools. Students through grades four to eight have the opportunity to compete in a mile-long race at Larz Anderson Park. Three years ago, eighth-grade students also had the chance to meet with spring sports teams and coaches at an open-night event. All of these efforts are meant to spread word of mouth and interest in young athletes, according to DeYoung.
The success of the girls cross country program has also been due to the culture and coaching, according to junior Camille Jordan.
“I definitely think it’s a combination of both the coaches and the teammates that’s made the team more popular over the years. Because the team is becoming more popular, it’s attracting more people. And, when you have more people, there’s going to be more competitive people in that group,” Jordan said.
Programs like the Chestnut Hill Club and Chan Camp, as well as the robust youth programs, have created a strong sense of community within soccer players. Zoey Fagnan, senior and co-captain of the girls varsity soccer team, said the ingrained community helped with athlete retention and continued participation.
“I think it’s definitely a community and there’s lots of love and lots of support within that community. That can be a huge attraction or reason for people to stay in the game and continue playing,” Fagnan said. “We get to see JV on the bus and it’s always fun to ask how their game went. There’s definitely a lot of unity and that’s a huge reason why people stick with the sport throughout their high school career.”
Fagnan also said coaches like MacVeagh have supported girls teams and encouraged them to participate in soccer, which further helped develop the program.
“Brookline soccer puts a lot of support and emphasis on the girls teams, and I think our coaches all watch players as they grow up and really encourage them to come to the high school,” Fagnan said. “Girls soccer in Brookline has gotten progressively better and better, and I think that can be one reason why we’ve had higher numbers in recent years.”
Sustainability and future goals
The goal for the girls soccer and cross country programs, as well as girls sports in general, is to maintain growth, continue to succeed and offer the benefits of sports to women. Sustainability is important for maintaining the success of the girls cross country and girls soccer teams. Without an athlete pool to continually draw from, the sports would be faced again with challenges and dwindling numbers.
Sustainability and keeping up numbers is important for the girls cross country team, according to Jordan.
“I definitely think that we’re going to be able to sustain [the program]. Our coach was recently talking to us about what the team was like a couple years ago. When he first started, there were barely any girls on the team and now how much has changed,” Jordan said.
Girls sports are still experiencing growth, especially since the opportunities for female athletes have greatly improved since the start of these programs. Girls’ access to sports and the benefits of sports culture has been a fairly recent development when compared to boys’ sports.
MacVeagh said the growth of the girls soccer program will never be complete and, as a coach, it is imperative to maintain the program for years into the future.
“It’s a constant, ongoing thing. When this group graduates, the 6th graders are going to be 12th graders. And so are they going to be good enough to win their state championship?” MacVeagh said. “I think you need to build a culture but the culture, to some degree, is self-sustaining but, to another degree, it constantly needs another group of people to bring energy into it.”
According to Sprague, the introduction of girls sports into the mainstream has allowed girls the opportunity to become involved in team sports.
“Group dynamics are all around us. They’re in every aspect of our lives, whether it’s our careers, whether it’s school or it’s families. And so that’s just real life, so why shouldn’t girls benefit from having the opportunities to learn and grow in those dynamics in sports? I can’t imagine a world where girls didn’t have that opportunity,” Sprague said.
Fagnan said participation in sports provides a multitude of benefits for girls.
“I think that there’s a lot of times where girls will feel like they should just quit or do something else, but I think encouraging girls to get involved in sports can be really great for their confidence and for life skills for the future,” Fagnan said. “I think there’s lots of things that you can learn from it even if you’re just doing it for a year.”