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Thursday, December 1, 2011
NYC high schools show soccer's progress

By Val Ackerman

A few weeks ago I was a spectator at a sports event many of us can relate to: a game where my own kid was playing. My daughter Sally's high school soccer team (Brooklyn's own Saint Ann's Steamers) made it to the finals of the New York City independent school league playoffs, so my husband and I ventured over to the playing fields on Randall's Island. The opponent was Packer Collegiate Institute, a rival Brooklyn school located just a few blocks from Saint Ann's. Since the winner of the championship game would secure not only the league title but also neighborhood bragging rights, much was at stake.

The game turned out to be a nearly three-hour thriller. The teams battled to a scoreless tie in regulation and fought through four scoreless overtime periods before winding up in a penalty kick shootout. The score was 3-3 before the last two penalty kickers took their turns. Sienna Giraldi, of Saint Ann's, shot first and scored. Then Saint Ann's goalie Ava Anderson dramatically deflected the kick from the Packer's Anna Schwab to seal the win. The Saint Ann's girls, led by seniors Jo Haller, Beth Alexion and Sarah Hills, were delirious, and the 40 or so Saint Ann's students who had journeyed in a fan bus from Brooklyn to support the team poured onto the field to mob the players and bask in the victory.

The Saint Ann's soccer team shows off its hardware after winning the AAIS league title.

The context of the game bears noting. Saint Ann's reputation is on the artsy side, with a bohemian, "hipster" air that sets it apart from the more traditional private schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. While interscholastic sports are offered, the emphasis Saint Ann's places on athletics pales in comparison to its focus on intellectual and artistic pursuits. (On its website, Saint Ann's touts its ability to impart to students "the best of human traditions and discoveries while nurturing intellectual adventure.")

The quality of the sports experience for students at Saint Ann's is vastly different from what you'd see at a suburban school. The gym is matchbox-small, and students on teams like soccer and baseball have to bus to distant locations in Brooklyn to practice and play home games. To say the school is not a sports powerhouse would be a gross understatement. And so for the girls' soccer team to advance this far into the playoffs was a considerable accomplishment.

As I took in the atmosphere from my perch in the bleachers, I reflected on how far girls' sports have come -- for city and suburban girls alike -- since my days as a high school athlete in the mid-1970s. For one thing, we now have soccer. When I was in school, soccer wasn't yet an interscholastic sport for girls, so female athletes who wanted to play a fall sport were left to choose between field hockey and cross country (I couldn't stomach the three-mile run, so field hockey got the nod). The progression of girls' soccer from virtually nothing to a grassroots and high school force, even at a place like Saint Ann's, is one of the most visible success stories of Title IX.

I was also struck by the quality of the competition I saw. The game was extremely well-played, perhaps because of the earlier start female athletes have today in developing their skills. My team-sports career started in high school, but girls today (even at Saint Ann's) participate in grassroots and travel leagues long before their high school careers get underway, and they have the athletic proficiency to show for it.

I especially liked the assertiveness I saw on the field. The girls from both teams seemed unafraid to head balls, make physical contact or hit the dirt. And I was impressed by the way they didn't give up as the game spilled into extra time. I thought of all the adages about the role of team sports in developing life skills and hoped these "intellectually adventurous" girls would benefit from their experience playing for the Steamers the same way I did playing for the Hopewell Valley Bulldogs.

After the game ended, the championship organizer conducted a brief awards ceremony on the field. As I watched the girls from both teams collect their medals, I wondered how the game's outcome would impact them. Would the satisfaction of the win be fleeting for the Saint Ann's girls, or would their proud feelings stay with them for a while? Would their classmates who came to cheer them on still be buzzing about the game in school the next day or the next week, or would the girls' feat quickly be forgotten?

And how about the Packer girls? Would they be in despair because victory had just eluded their grasp? Would the loss keep the seniors up at night and make the returning players even more determined to win next year?

When I was a junior in high school, my basketball team lost in a buzzer-beater in the state semifinals, and I took it very hard (I moped for a year; to this day, I still think about that game). Would these girls be similarly affected, or would they shrug off the loss and move on?

All I know is Saint Ann's didn't have much time to savor the victory. It lost a few days later in the state tournament, which ended its season. No time for the girls to dwell there, either. There was homework to do and lots of intellectual adventure to nurture.