On the Field: Women & Soccer

  • By:  Amy Walton

Women are having a ball on local soccer fields, staying fit and making friends.

When Sue Starkey was a young Navy wife living in Hawaii, she spent countless hours on the sidelines watching her kids play soccer. An athlete most of her life, Sue knew quite a bit about basketball and swimming. In fact, she coached both sports in Oahu.

The black and white ball was another story. “Everyone played soccer, but I knew nothing about it,” Sue said. So she did what many parents do: cheered for her kids and chatted with the adults.

That all changed when the male coach started teaching the mothers the art of the game, eventually suggesting they form a team. “It was a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I learned how to pass,” Sue recalled.

An estimated 30 million women play soccer today on school and college teams—up 4 million in the last decade—and in recreation leagues and pick-up games.

Let’s meet Sue and two other Tidewater women who find fitness, friendly competition, and their tribes in this increasingly popular women’s sport.

For the Love of Soccer

Tidewater Women’s Soccer League

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Sue’s first foray into soccer evolved into a squad of soccer moms—literally—who played other teams around the island on weekends. With their husbands and children rooting for them, Sue and her teammates played to win but also to have fun. The families shared a potluck meal on the grounds after each game.

Since then Sue, 64, has lived a largely nonstop life, managing a busy household while moving wherever the Navy sent her husband. She jokes that her seven kids grew up doing homework in their mom’s van. “We were always on the go,” said Sue.

All of her brood played soccer, and two went on to play in college. “Soccer was our world,” said Sue who lives in Jolliff Woods in Chesapeake. Truth be told, soccer is still very much a part of Sue’s world.

As president of Tidewater Women’s Soccer League (TWSL), she oversees a program of eight teams in two divisions that play on Tuesday and Friday evenings. The organization grew out of co-ed pick-up games and now provides a sense of community for diverse groups of women seeking recreation and fun. There are no practices leading up to the weekly games.

“We’re there for the love of soccer and to help women,” Sue said.

High school sports for girls didn’t exist when Sue was in school. That changed when President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which opened the door for girls’ sports in school. This happened two years prior to Sue’s graduation, but it took a while for programs to catch on.

The Ohio State University graduate has played soccer pretty much nonstop since learning the art of passing in Hawaii. She also coached for 15 years at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy. She loves everything about the game, including the camaraderie and the mental and physical engagement, something she calls “a cross between a chess game and a dance.”

She thinks women are drawn to the sport to get in shape and connect with others. Plus, she said, it’s easy to learn: “Just pick up a ball and do it!” And Sue does it, even on the beach in the North American Sand Soccer Championships in June.

“I’m pretty sure I was the oldest woman playing this year,” she said with a laugh, “but I love the heat and the whole atmosphere. It’s like party time!”

Sue invites nearly every woman she meets to join her on the soccer field. “Young, old, new moms, out of shape women—they all can get a feeling of accomplishment from playing the game,” she said.

She’s come to realize everyone has a purpose in the game—whether on the field or in whatever “game” life gives us at any moment. “Everyone affects the outcome and each [is] equally valuable…. You can’t have one without the others.”

Off the field, Sue’s own “game” these days includes running marathons with her adult children, selling her jewelry and natural body butter, and exploring new business opportunities.

On the field, she just keeps playing, even though her challenged knees don’t permit her to score much. She strives to be a better player with each game and sees herself competing as long as her joints hold out.

“I love the game,” she said, “and I’ll play as long as I can.”  

Improving Confidence and Character

Soccer Also Builds Discipline

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Abby Pawley’s introduction to soccer started early in life. The Oceanfront resident was kicking balls down the field a couple years after learning to walk. She’s remained in the game for two decades.

Today at 24, Abby is the quintessential beach girl. She swims in the ocean, cruises around on her bicycle, and creates art on surfboards. She even has a modeling contract. But Abby’s schedule revolves around soccer.

Her relationship with the sport has followed a path that includes recreational and travel leagues, along with high school and college teams. Her father helped foster his daughter’s love for the game, serving as her coach through elementary and middle school. Abby herself is now a girls’ soccer coach, and she plays on a coed team.

“Co-ed soccer moves at a fast pace,” she explained. “Playing with both women and men has made me faster and better.”

Improving her game skills is important to Abby. She was a standout player at First Colonial High School before moving on to NC Wesleyan College. She scored two goals in her first collegiate game, leading her team to victory.

When an injury halted her college career, Abby returned to Hampton Roads, recovered, and earned a communications degree at Old Dominion University. She got back in the game, too, and is now an assistant coach at her high school alma mater, working alongside her mentor, Joe Tucei. She considers him a second dad.

“He listens to everything I say,” Abby said, adding they have great mutual respect for each other.

She credits Joe with the best soccer advice she ever received. “When I was a high school sophomore,” she said, “Coach Tucei told me to go as fast as I could.” That advice was a real game changer for her. She stopped thinking too much about the ball and just took off with it.        Now she moves it quickly down the field as a fiercely competitive player and joins her mentor in reinforcing this lesson with the FC soccer players. “I love everything about coaching them,” she said. “I love traveling with them and helping them build confidence and character.”

Abby considers confidence building one of soccer’s many benefits, along with great exercise and learning to get along and work with others. She loves the discipline the sport provides. “I’m super organized,” she said, “and I think that probably comes from soccer.”

Women’s soccer has gained respectability over the years, Abby reckons, especially with two recent World Cup wins by the U.S. women’s national team. She sees young girls wanting to emulate those players. Her favorite player is Alex Morgan, the Orlando Pride forward and co-captain of the U.S. women’s team.

Abby may not yet be on the same level with Alex Morgan, but she keeps training and playing. Admittedly competitive, she feels good even after losing. “This is an outlet,” she said. “It’s good for me, and it drives me to want to be better in whatever I do.”

Local Genius is Building Up Her Team

On the Field and in the Apple Store


Melanie Harper is a team builder, both on and off the soccer field. The 27-year-old Hampton resident is the Lead Genius for Apple’s Lynnhaven Mall location, where she manages a squad of certified technical experts.

Until recently, she was also the coach of her 6-year-old son’s soccer team, arranging her work hours around practices and games. It wasn’t unusual for her to coach on Saturday mornings then make the 45-minute drive to work, where she’d close the store at 10 p.m. She often had to return to work early on Sunday. Her time was tight.

“They made it worth it,” she said, referring to the kids.

Melanie has played soccer most of her life. Growing up, she idolized stars Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm. Her bedroom was plastered with their photos. And yet, she has always played on and coached coed teams.

“I certainly had the option to play on an all-girl team, but I wasn’t into it,” she said. She readily confesses she was not a strong player in her youth and her teams went a bit overboard when she landed a goal. “They got completely excited when I scored,” she recalled.

After more than a decade on recreation league teams, she put the ball down to play the flute in her high school’s marching band and later at Old Dominion University. The love of the game is still in her, though. These days she’s an avid player in pick-up games with friends and relatives. In fact, most evenings see her and her family—parents, fiancé, and son—playing soccer in her backyard.

“We’re kind of obsessed,” Melanie said, with a chuckle.

So it appears. Her dad coached her for six of the eleven years she played on a team, and the family has never missed a Saturday morning game, whether Melanie was playing or coaching. Melanie has seen the women’s national team compete five times and once met Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe at a game. She treasures a jersey signed by the team. This year her mother ordered matching t-shirts for the clan prior to the women’s World Cup.

Melanie loves feeding off the energy of other players. She enjoys the exercise soccer provides and the mental connection with people she doesn’t know well. She gets excited seeing her team of little ones work together.

Coaching and being in the game have taught her important life and career skills, too: patience, perseverance, a sense of purpose, bringing out the best in others.

“Building up and empowering my team means the world to me,” she said, referring to her Geniuses at the Apple store and any group she coaches.

Melanie encourages other women to consider coaching, even if they know little about the game. “Teams of younger players always need coaches,” she said. “If you want to coach soccer, look for opportunities, and ask.”

Melanie anticipates returning to league play in the near future, probably with a coed team, and resuming coaching in the spring. In the meantime, though, she’s happy perfecting her soccer skills in regular pickup games and applying their lessons to her work.

“Soccer makes me better all around,” she said.

Interested in Playing?

• Tidewater Women’s Soccer League: www.twslva.org

• Southeastern Virginia Women’s Soccer Association: www.playsevwsa.com

Thinking About Coaching Youth? Visit www.hamptonroadssports.org/page/youth-soccer/

Amy Walton is a multi-certified women’s life coach, speaker, and writer who empowers women to live with balance, joy, and purpose.

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