She moved into town early in 1988. Coming from Virginia or North Carolina--somewhere from that part of the country--she had already played at a higher level of soccer than was offered girls in this part of the country. But she lived now in Florida's panhandle, Pensacola to be exact, and club soccer was just in its beginnings for boys. The few girls that wanted to play could hold their own with guys and that's where they played, with guys.
Today, of course, things are different here. Pensacola has one of the best soccer complexes in the country, one that last year saw both our women's and men's Olympic teams, top teams from Germany, Brazil, Denmark, Nigeria, and Argentina, as well as some of our other national and MLS teams. Some of these were women teams too. Mia Hamm, the top woman player in the world, even lists this area as her home and occasionally shows up to watch her husband’s youth team play--her husband is a flight instructor in the military: perhaps you remember Pensacola from an old John Wayne movie as a home for naval aviation.
And in high school play this past year, four of our local women's teams (and two guy's) advanced into the state’s final 16, the regional semifinals, in their respective state districts. Too, like in many other parts of the country, club play is available here to both men and women at many levels of play.
Soon after she moved into the area I received a call from our local city recreational director. She wanted to know if I would accept a girl on my U-12 recreational team. It seemed that no other coach would take her--they didn't want to weaken their respective teams--and I was her last hope. We were a team new to the league, not part of the local politics or rivalries. I told the director that I'd be happy to have her join us. Secretly, I wasn't quite sure how the guys would take to her.
Now, much later, I think of her sometimes. I have just returned yesterday from a nine hour bus ride, a ride that had brought us back home from Lake Mary, Florida (near Orlando) where the women's team I now coach, Pensacola High School--the one she had played for--just lost in the regional semifinals to the number four ranked team in the state. Though we lost 8-3, we played with a lot of heart, advancing with a group of girls that had just four club players on its 17 player roster. But one of them is special, like she was: Joey scored 71 goals this season in 18 games and in the process broke all of her old records. Against Lake Mary, Joey had twice beaten five players all by herself to find the back of their net.
I can still remember that first day of practice with the guys: the inevitable, "Ah, not a girl, coach." But most of the guys hadn't played that much themselves, so their biases were mostly for show. When we got to it and played at holding possession in a limited space, all of us could see that she could play. In fact, if the truth be admitted, she could play better than the rest of us.
An interesting thing happened two weeks later, just before our first game. We were choosing two team captains for the first half of the season. The mechanism called for each player to submit two choices anonymously on a slip of paper; the two receiving the most votes would then become captains. As guys that age do, every one voted for himself and his best friend. She was the only one to vote for two of the others and the only one not to receive any votes herself.
That fall we went on to finish midlevel in the league, winning more than we lost but growing together in the process. She scored five or six goals and had even more assists. When we chose captains again for the winter season, this time every slip of paper had her name (and for most again the name of the player submitting the slip). Everyone's that is except for her's, she had once more chosen two of the others. From that day on she remained one of our captains.
She continued to play for me--a lone girl on a guy's team--for three more years, until she entered high school and decided to play with a girl's club team in the off season. Two other memories of her stand out for me.
On a U-14 all star team, she once again found herself the lone girl on a team with guys she didn't know all that well. But everyone by now respected her play. At the end of our 30 game tournament schedule in which we had won most of our games, and she often had started as an outside midfielder, we found ourselves playing in the finals of a tournament in Dothan, Alabama. As we lined up for the opening kickoff, their coaches eyebrows raised as he saw we started her over several guys on the bench.
When we got into the match, she put in three or four long crosses early from which we scored once. In the process, she seemed to be getting around her mark at will. So much so that their coach yelled, "You've got to mark her better." To which their midfielder replied, "I can't help it coach, I'm in love." I haven't mentioned yet that she was (and is) a tall, long-legged, attractive blond.
That summer we went as a team to a camp at the University of South Alabama. Under coaches, Roy Patton and Tony McCall--both tough Irishmen--the camp was a tough, no nonsense experience filled with soccer from early morning to late at night. There were 150 campers, three of which were women. That first session, because we were one of the few intact teams, our team was pitted against another in the match to open the camp.
Again Roy and Tony raised their eyebrows when she started over several guys on the bench. But both understood--though their brows raised even further--as she started cranking 50 yard crosses into the box, and we scored twice. When the other team tried to stop her with slide tackles not meant to reach the ball just send her skyward, the guys on our team took the offender aside and threatened to rearrange his face. She said nothing, just pulled the top of her shirt over her eyes and brought herself back together. By camp's end she was voted one of the two top players at the camp. The other, Erin Hirsh, was also on our team during that camp experience and also a woman player. Erin went on to SMU to start as a freshman for a women's team that finished in the final four in 1995.
Leah Bridges played four outstanding years at Pensacola High School then went on to start as a defender at the University of Florida on its first varsity team. This past year Florida played itself into the final eight of the NCAA tournament before being ousted by North Carolina, the eventual champion. Leah, a junior to be, has since switched colleges. She now plays at the University of South Alabama, but when I think of her, I still think of that first day. When, after the first few minutes of practice, I said to myself, "The girl can play!”
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