This fall, the school expanded its athletic offerings to include the first Girls JV Soccer Team in Gunn history. With 33 student-athletes rostered, compared to about 23 to 24 in a typical year, Athletic Director Mike Marich P’23 ’24 gave a green light to expand the program to include varsity and JV teams at the start of the season. The JV team went on to beat Canterbury early – and win the first point of the year toward the Canterbury-Gunn Cup – racking up another point on Saturday, when they beat Canterbury a second time, 4-1, at Canterbury Day on the Saints’ home turf.
The JV team ended its season with a record of 4-3, while the varsity team finished with a record of 8-5-2. “Both teams are having incredible seasons,” Emily Abelson, Head Coach for Girls Varsity Soccer, said last week. “There’s never been a JV team before but for the school it highlights strong female enrollment and interest from female students.”
Asked what is driving that increased interest, Abelson gave a nod to the U.S. women’s national team, which she follows closely. “They did so well this year and their story during the Olympics as well – they were the favorite and they didn’t win. Their journey and the women’s national team news around equal pay and women’s sports in general, these topics are getting more air time. I think more girls are interested in the sport based on the recent experience they’ve had watching the women’s national team or the Olympics.”
Word of mouth and the influence of friend groups were also contributing factors, especially among those who were not three-sport athletes and decided to take a risk by playing soccer for the first time. “The girls who’ve played for a couple of years have had a good experience,” said Jess Lyon, who took on the role of Head Coach for the Girls JV Soccer Team. “They’re excited to be there and they talk about that. I think that’s how other girls join.”
“There’s an ebb and flow to small school sports and enrollments around those sports,” acknowledged Alisa Croft, Assistant Coach for Girls Varsity Soccer. “If you looked historically at the pattern to girls soccer, you’d have some years where there were 26 kids on the team, and some years where there were less than that. If you graph it, it kind of goes in waves. I think a lot of that plays to friend groups, but it’s also a little natural. It just kind of happens. Because we're a small school, you just get that flow, that pattern.”
“Everything we do is student-driven and centered around the student experience,” Marich said. “I see my job as being able to provide opportunities when they present themselves. It was an easy decision to create a girls JV soccer team. In the past, we had wanted to create a girls JV team, but we did not have the numbers to make it viable. This year, we did. By all accounts the experience has been really positive. The coaches worked well together, the athletes had smiles on their faces. It provides a nice segue into our athletic program as a way to build confidence at an appropriate level. There is really good vertical alignment in the program and that’s really attributed to our coaches, Emily, Jess and Alisa. It is my hope that the program will continue to grow under Emily’s leadership.”
From a coaching perspective, Lyon said, “It’s been awesome that all three of us have worked to build the team. We collaborate as coaches and we are working so great together, which is something the girls see.”
The three coaches ran a combined JV and varsity practice every afternoon, building a foundation and a path forward for those who are interested in playing at the varsity level in the future.
“So many people think JV is a negative thing and we’re breaking that stereotype to say it can be an awesome, positive experience,” Abelson said. “It helps that the JV girls are not separate from the varsity girls, so they see what they can strive to and the level they can and want to be at. Many teams split up for practices whereas we keep everything together in our technical and foundational skills. We pair up a JV and a varsity player and expect that they are working as hard as they can to ensure they are at the level that we as a college-preparatory program expect them to work at. The younger kids get to know some of the older kids, they get skills exposure. They get exposed to kids who do things at a faster pace. They know what they’re working toward, if they want to be reflective and think about it. If you see it and you’re involved in it, then you can get there.”
Some members of the JV team were selected as swing players for the varsity team, and dressed for varsity games. “I have talked to girls through the admissions process this year about our program in general and I’m so excited that we have this place,” Abelson said. “It’s not a bad thing to be on a JV team. You get to work on developing your skills with other players that have the same mentality as you and also compete at a super high level because we’re practicing with varsity.”
The coaches also incorporated lessons that can be applied on and off the soccer field. “We talk to them about showing up, taking care of our bodies, just having an awareness about what are your values,” Lyon said. “We’re asking them to show up and show your best. We’re bringing life lessons.”
The coaches talked about the difference between negative self-talk and positive self-talk and what that looks like on a game day, a practice day and every day. “As a head coach, Emily very much focuses on team morale and believing in oneself first,” Lyon said. “She does a lot of that with the kids. Positive thinking and mindset: What should your mindset be going into a game? This particular group of kids is hardworking, they’re kind, they’re fun to be around in the afternoon. They’re highly skilled, they want to get better, they listen. And that makes our job as coaches fun. We’re working with a bunch of kids who have allowed us to have fun with it.”
Abelson, who played on the women’s soccer and lacrosse teams at Emmanuel College, draws on her own experiences as an athlete to impart those lessons. “I’ve learned dedication, I’ve learned hard work, I’ve learned about disappointment, how to communicate, loss, grief, all of those things through soccer,” she said.
Every game day this season, she wrote a quote on the board in the girls locker room. “Last Saturday, I was so busy, I forgot. Bella Schifano '24 said, ‘I wrote a quote on the board for you.’ It was a Mia Hamm quote,” Abelson said, smiling. “You hope that the little things you do as a coach resonate with them.”