The memories are hazy. Even coming back here, on this old patch of pitch where they were made some 50 years ago, does little to coax them into focus.
Yet as she stands on a soccer field in Vermont, the 73-year-old woman in the pink cardigan squints in the sun of a cloudless September day and tries to remember anyway. The details are sparse … a visiting team of women from another college … a soccer field near the new dining hall … a late-game run at the goal.
The young women listening to Suzanne Roberts, all members of the Castleton women’s soccer team, catch one another’s glance and share smiles when Roberts mentions “the new dining commons.” That building hasn’t been new since 1964.
“Everybody came out of the cafeteria and watched our game,” Roberts recounts. “The man I was dating, he was on the men’s soccer team and was standing there with his friends.
“I can almost remember which side of the field I was on when I ran down and kicked that ball and it went into the goal,” she recalls, the memories flooding faster now. “His friends cheered and gave him a punch on the shoulder — kind of like, ‘Look what she did.’”
The win-loss record for the 1966 Spartans women’s soccer team has been lost to time. Memories like Roberts’ hold some of the only evidence of their accomplishments, yet she can’t even recall her teammates’ names.
Still, the way they made her feel has endured for a lifetime. “I was so shy and quiet when I was young,” she says. “But they helped bring me out, made me feel accepted. Like I was part of a team.”
She had no idea they were making history.
When the NCAA releases its latest participation numbers this month, the data will show that of the 499,217 student-athletes who competed at its schools last year, 28,310 were women’s soccer players. They are now the second-most ubiquitous female college athletes in the nation, behind only outdoor track and field athletes, who numbered 30,326 last year.
When the U.S. women’s national team wowed international audiences while capturing the Women’s World Cup title for a record fourth time this year, Americans were once again captivated by a sport that seems to reemerge in our consciousness every couple of years. It started with a FIFA Women’s World Championship in 1991, an event so young it wasn’t yet called the Women’s World Cup. Then a gold medal in 1996, the first year for women’s soccer as an Olympic sport. Another Women’s World Cup victory in 1999, the year Brandi Chastain scored the game-winning penalty kick and peeled off her jersey to celebrate in a sports bra, a moment memorialized on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Newsweek. More Olympic gold in 2004, in 2008, in 2012. And another World Cup championship in 2015 before the team claimed its most recent title in July.
The spectacular success has mirrored the sport’s explosive growth in college sports. Only 80 NCAA schools sponsored women’s soccer in 1981-82, the first year of NCAA women’s championships, making it about as widespread as women’s fencing. Last year 1,038 NCAA colleges and universities sponsored the sport — 93% of member schools. That’s a nearly 1,200% increase in 37 years.
Anson Dorrance, the 22-time national champion women’s soccer coach at North Carolina who coached the 1991 Women’s World Championship team, says the connection between the women’s national team and college soccer is no accident. “The collegiate game in the United States is not given enough credit for how it has developed the international game,” Dorrance says. “A huge driving force for the development of the women’s game is the popularity and success of the collegiate game. The model that’s continued to vanquish the world’s international game is the collegiate model.”
If the seeds of international dominance were sown among American colleges and universities, where did they first take root?
Trace the arc of Women’s World Cup victories and Olympic gold medals back to their forebears, and you will find a cradle of intercollegiate women’s soccer in a far corner of the country. There, you’ll discover that competitive soccer for women was born at an apex in time: between the old way, when women participated for play and exercise, and the new, when women got a taste for competition and wanted more.
“There are some people who think that women’s soccer started in 1999 when the women’s team won the World Cup and Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt,” says Shawn Ladda, a kinesiology professor and women’s sports historian at Manhattan. “No, no, no. Women have been playing soccer for a long time. The reality is, there’s a much richer history of women’s soccer in this country than people realize.”
Having no official uniforms, the players on Castleton’s first women’s soccer team sported a ragtag collection of school sweatshirts and other athletic wear in their 1966 yearbook photo. Castleton University photo
The British claim they invented soccer around the 10th century, when they vanquished the Danish and then kicked around a Dane’s skull in celebration. The Chinese say it began with their ancient game, cuju, played in the second and third centuries B.C. Yet the Americas have an early claim, too: Pilgrims observed Native Americans in coastal Massachusetts playing a game called Pasuckquakkohowog, which translates to “they gather to play football.”
The roots of American collegiate soccer are just as conflicted. Two sports, soccer and American football, claim the Nov. 6, 1869, game between Rutgers and Princeton as their first collegiate matchup. In truth, they are probably both right because the game resembled both sports — plus rugby.
Soccer and football even would go on to spar over their names — each claiming soccer’s preferred international term, football — until the American soccer community acquiesced in a quarrel that extended into the 1970s.
Women’s soccer, however, appeared quietly. As with other sports for women in the early 20th century, soccer’s place was during “play days” on college campuses, part of women’s physical education programs. The women’s place, in those days, was to get exercise but not compete; games were designed to give young women physical activity without the rigors of competition.
“Many of the early physical educators believed we need to be concerned about the health of women if they’re going to be successful in higher education,” says Ladda, whose doctoral dissertation, “The Early Beginnings of Intercollegiate Soccer in the United States,” explored the sport’s history. “They saw men’s athletics being so corrupt and were nervous intercollegiate athletics for women might go down the same road. They wanted women to be healthy and to move. They thought, ‘Exercise is good for women, but it needs to be in a controlled way.’”
Medical doctors of the day also believed competitive sports could interfere with women’s ability to have children. Historian Kathleen E. McCrone wrote that many in the early 20th century believed “physical effort like running, jumping and climbing might damage their reproductive organs and make them unattractive to men.”
That prevailing wisdom limited soccer contests to intraschool games played with mixed teams from different classes to avoid pitting one clique against another. To further illustrate the friendly nature of the competition, play days often ended with a punch-and-cookies reception.
The first school to break that mold, Ladda’s research shows, was Smith — not by competing against other schools, but by pitting women’s dormitory against women’s dormitory and class against class as early as 1924. The experiment never got the chance to expand: Smith President Herbert Davis banned intercollegiate competition on campus in the 1940s.
“Davis was simply following the lead of female leaders in physical education of the 1930s, who strongly endorsed play days and discouraged intercollegiate athletics,” Ladda wrote in her dissertation. The ban wouldn’t be lifted on the Massachusetts campus until 1971.
So when American intercollegiate soccer for women found its first shaky footing, it was even deeper in New England, not far from the Canadian border. There, small colleges in Vermont were influenced by the college-against-college contests already being waged in Quebec.
Still, U.S. athletics directors first had to wait for the old way of thinking about women’s sports to die out — or at least for the people who thought that way to retire.
T.R. Terry, the now retired athletics director who established Castleton’s first intercollegiate women’s teams, attends his grandson’s college soccer game at Dickinson in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Finding opponents and overcoming old ideas about competition for women were among the obstacles Terry faced in starting the women’s soccer team at Castleton. Larry French / NCAA Photos
T.R. Terry was 23 years old when he was hired as athletics director in 1958 at what was then called Castleton State College. “The youngest AD in the country,” says Terry, now 84.
He brought with him some new ideas. During his first meeting with college President Richard Dundas, the young athletics director asked: “Why isn’t there athletics for women?”
The president’s answer was a common refrain. “He said, ‘The women’s physical education teacher not only does not believe in it but insists the women not compete in sports,’” Terry recalls. Still, something else the president said gave Terry hope for the near future: “You can start women’s athletics when Edith Ewald retires.”
Ewald had arrived at Castleton in 1937 as the first faculty member specifically trained in physical education. According to Ladda’s research, Ewald was known for adapting soccer’s rules to fit her idea of a female-friendly sport, such as using field hockey’s rules for corner kicks in soccer matches. “It could be surmised that the field hockey rule helped to decrease physical contact and may have been deemed more safe,” Ladda writes.
Ewald retired from Castleton in spring 1963. “And bingo,” Terry says, “that fall we had three sports for women.”
That same year, the Castleton men’s soccer team was a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics co-champion, and the sport grew popular on campus. The women’s teams introduced that first year were field hockey, basketball and softball. Terry added women’s soccer three years later, in 1966.
“Sports provided a much-needed outlet for me,” says Joanne Tuxbury, one of Roberts’ teammates on the 1966 soccer squad, who now lives in Homosassa, Florida. “Soccer, basketball, field hockey — I tried them all because they were looking to field teams, and I never had those opportunities in high school. There wasn’t a lot of pressure. To me, it was just an opportunity to get myself physically going.”
Ironically, the biggest challenge Terry says he faced in 1966 wasn’t starting the team. It was finding other teams to play. Among the competitors were nearby Johnson State, where women’s soccer might have started as early as 1958, and Lyndon State. (Those two schools would combine in 2018 to become Northern Vermont.)
Ladda’s research notes these Vermont teams appear to be the first to play intercollegiately, but she stopped short of calling them varsity programs because they were not funded by athletics. Castleton paid for its program with student activity fees, and Johnson State’s was funded with physical education department dollars. The source of Lyndon State’s funding is unknown. And while all three programs popped up at similar times (and even ventured over the border to compete against Quebec’s McGill and Macdonald colleges), no record clarifies which one was first.
The 1966 Castleton yearbook devoted a half-page to the school’s new team. In the team photo, young women in mismatched sweatshirts and skirts pose in front of a soccer goal with their clipboard-carrying coach.
The girl in the center of the front row squats, her hands gripping a soccer ball.
The U.S. won the 2019 Women's World Cup in July, defeating The Netherlands 2-0 in the final match. Alex Grimm / Getty Images
As the women’s liberation movement broadened female roles in society, a new thinking occurred — one of empowerment that embraced competition.
In 1972, Title IX shifted the landscape by requiring colleges to offer equal opportunities to women. Three years later, Brown funded a women’s soccer team, commonly thought of as the first varsity program in the nation.
The year Title IX was passed, Carin Gabarra was an 8-year-old tinkering with a soccer ball. By high school, being a female athlete made her feel like she wasn’t normal. “It wasn’t until college that I really felt comfortable admitting to people that I was an athlete,” said Gabarra, an eight-time All-American in high school and college and the women’s soccer coach at Navy since 1993. “I never dressed like I was an athlete. People would ask if I was the soccer player, and I would generally say no.”
In 1980, SUNY Cortland beat UCLA in the final game of a national tournament that led the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women to create a national women’s soccer championship. It sponsored just one, in 1981, before the NCAA took over women’s championships in 1982. The sport grew quickly enough for each division to sponsor its own championship by the end of the 1980s.
Then came the 1991 World Cup, when Gabarra earned the Golden Ball Award for the tournament’s best player. Five years later, she and her teammates took home a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics.
And somewhere in that time, minds changed. Judith Sweet, one of the foundational figures in women’s college athletics, recalls sitting in the bleachers at a women’s soccer game in the late 1980s, when she was the athletics director at UC San Diego. Those women had been successful, and the nationally competitive men’s team started watching. “From behind me, where the men’s soccer team was, I hear one of the men say, ‘She’s a great athlete,’” Sweet recalls. “Up until that time, you didn’t really hear a lot of male athletes compliment the women’s ability.”
Soccer, from rec fields to college campuses to the international stage, had helped reshape the way Americans look at female athletes.
“I genuinely feel like the American women’s collegiate game has had an impact on changing our culture in all kinds of ways,” Dorrance continues. “They’re showing a future for women’s athletics.”
Today, the look of the Spartans women’s soccer team has evolved, and the love for competition is still present.
Roberts, the 1966 Castleton women’s soccer teammate who visited campus this fall, apologizes. She can’t remember much from her team’s exploits.
At first, she recalls driving her teammates to a match at Lyndon State. But then she catches herself — was that the badminton team? She apologizes again. She didn’t know then they were part of a gender barrier-breaking moment that would build into an international explosion of the women’s game.
Roberts is more comfortable talking about a more recent soccer game she saw, one in which she was a spectator watching many of her 11 grandchildren split into teams and play on a lot near their church. Roberts scanned the field for 12-year-old
Lianna, the granddaughter who lives near her and reminds Roberts of herself at that age.
“She is such a quiet little girl, kind of like I was,” Roberts says. “And then I saw her going down the field, and she had the ball, and all her cousins were cheering her on.
“And I thought, ‘Wow,’” the women’s soccer pioneer continues. “I did not know that was in her.”