One day in May the girls' soccer team from Whitney Young Magnet High School marched onto Soldier Field, beat their arch rivals from Lincoln Park High, and captured the city crown. In the tumultuous celebration that followed, a slightly sobering fact emerged: the victory, no matter how sweet, was also an invitation to a slaughter.
For the Public League champion now had to represent the Chicago Public Schools in the state playoffs. And when it comes to girls' soccer, the suburbs rule. No city public school has ever won a game in the state tournament--no city public school has ever even scored a goal. "As far as I know, a city school's never even had a shot on goal," says Dave Clark, a grade-school music teacher who's coach of the Young team. "We're trying to close that gap, but it's a mighty big gap."
If Clark never closes the gap, it won't be for lack of effort. As quixotic as it sounds, Clark is trying to build his own little powerhouse. Among the obstacles he faces is his own inexperience. "I never played soccer when I was growing up," he says. "I didn't do a lot of organized sports. My dad was a small church pastor, and we moved around a lot--Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Arkansas, Tennessee. I did athletics on the side--Little League baseball, grade-school basketball. But no soccer."
He learned about the game in the mid-1990s when his children, Nate and Niki, decided they wanted to play. "They did the AYSO thing," he says. "To tell you the truth, one year I was out of a job and I didn't have enough money to join an AYSO league. It started me thinking about all the other parents who might be in the same position. So I started a team at their grade school."
His son, who graduated from Young this year, moved on to other sports and became an offensive lineman in football. But his daughter stayed with soccer, as did Clark. "I think it's an awesome sport," he says. "Physically, it demands just about everything of the body and mind that a sport can demand. You have to learn discipline and tactics, but there's a lot of room for spontaneity and improvisation. The kids have to think and react. They don't just follow the plan."
In 1997, when his daughter was beginning her freshman year at Young, he was a volunteer assistant coach. When the head coach resigned, Clark filled the vacancy. He'd studied the game hard, watching and observing masters such as Salvador Morote, regarded by some as the city's preeminent youth-soccer coach. "I watched videos and read books and stole stuff from other coaches," he says. "I learned a lot of lessons."
One of the first lessons he learned was that Chicago doesn't come close to developing its soccer potential. For starters, few black kids play the game, though the Young team has an even mix of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. Then there's the great cultural divide between the communities that do play the game. Many of the thriving lakefront youth teams come from upper-middle-class white families, while few of the eastern European and Hispanic youth leagues have girls' teams. There's no citywide program. There isn't even a single great high school team in the city--public or private.
In contrast, suburban townships such as Barrington, Saint Charles, and New Trier have built programs that resemble the East German sports monoliths before the fall of communism. At an early age, the tallest, strongest, fastest, and most gifted girls are assembled into all-star squads that play all year. By the time they reach high school, the core of the team has been together for almost a decade, playing in regional, state, and national tournaments. Moreover, many coaches recruit, urging parents of potential stars to move to their towns.
"You can just look at those teams and see they're better," says Megan Duffy, a 16-year-old sophomore on the Young team. "Those girls have been coached at a high school level since grade school. They've been coached to do things that are a lot more physically and mentally demanding than anything we've learned."
Duffy played soccer in grade school, but it was largely a recreational league. "We didn't do year-round training or play indoors," she says. "I love playing. But it was never about building a great high school team."
Some of her teammates never played until high school. "I used to run cross-country, but I wanted something else," says Jasmine Gipson, a graduating senior. "I've known Coach Clark for years. I'm best friends with his kids--we went to grade school together. He said, 'Why don't you play soccer?' This was my junior year. And it was frustrating--sometimes I couldn't even kick the ball."
Nonetheless, she quickly picked up the game. Indeed, if Clark has an advantage, it's that most of his girls are high achievers. Young's a restrictive enrollment school--its students have to take a qualifying exam. They're an almost relentlessly driven bunch. Duffy says she often gets up at 4:30 in the morning to finish her homework. And Gipson, who earned a full academic scholarship to Dartmouth, once went 48 hours without sleep because she had several assignments to complete. "It was last year when I was on the track team," she recalls. "We had to do 600-meter repetitions with two-minute rests in between. I went over to sit down, and I just fell asleep. I kind of conked out. The other kids couldn't find me--they thought I'd gone home. I remember a school janitor waking me. He said, 'I think practice is over.'"
Led by Adelaide Anderson, Clark's team managed to win the city title last year, beating Lincoln Park. Then came the rude awakening. They were crushed 12 to nothing in the state tournament by Quincy Notre Dame. "It wasn't just the score," says Clark. "I don't think we were ready at all for what we were up against. We were so far behind. We even had illegal uniforms--there were no numbers on the front, plus they looked pretty scruffy. There were a couple of coaches who came up and said, 'By the way, do you know that your uniforms are illegal?' I suppose they could have forced us to forfeit. But they weren't going to cancel an elite-eight game."
Over the summer and into the fall, Clark and his assistant coaches--Doug Eisenhouer, Alex Thomson, and Aaron Tucker--began trying to build a stronger team. "One thing we did was to have a few fund-raisers to raise some money to get legal uniforms," he says. "We upgraded the schedule. We scheduled nonleague games against Saint Ignatius, Latin, and Francis Parker. I also signed them up for an indoor league. We're trying to build on the foundation of what we've already accomplished."
For the most part it worked. True, they lost to Latin and Saint Ignatius--perhaps the two best teams, private or public, in the city. But they won their conference championship and defended their city title in last month's game against Lincoln Park at Soldier Field, which set them up again for the challenge of the state tournament. "We were determined to show some sort of improvement--even if it just meant playing a closer game," says Clark. "I told the girls it's a stepping-stone taking us higher and higher to where we want to go."
And so on Friday, June 2, they set off for Naperville Central High School, which was hosting this year's tournament. There was one small hitch. The opening round fell on the same day as the city's mandatory high school achievement exam. "The girls had to take two tests starting at eight in the morning," Clark says. In contrast, the Barrington team drove to Naperville the night before and stayed at a hotel, which let them zip over to the stadium in the morning--fresh, well rested, and ready to play.
A few minutes before game time, Clark gathered the team for a pep talk. "I've been thinking about what I was going to say, thinking about what this means," he began. "And I kept thinking about timing and destiny. I'm not a person who believes a lot in coincidence. But when timing and destiny come together you get opportunity. And that's what you have today. You have an opportunity for a great personal triumph. You have to ask yourself, are you ready to deal with it? I'll have to coach better than I've ever coached. You'll have to push yourself beyond anything you've ever done. I want you to give them everything you have. They're girls the same age as you are. They play soccer. You play soccer. Give it all you got."
They let out a cheer, clapped their hands, marched across the street, entered the stadium, stood for the national anthem, and took the field. Megan Duffy was right. You could see the difference between the teams just by looking at the players. The girls from Barrington--with 20 wins and three losses--were clearly stronger than the girls from Young. They were also smarter about playing the game, taking command from the start and driving the ball onto the Young side of the field. It was almost as though they were teasing Young's players, playing cat and mouse, passing the ball back and forth as they zoomed in on the goalie.
To give the Young players credit, they scrambled from the start as they desperately tried to repulse the attack. Their goalie, Jessica Barrientos, made a very snazzy save. Three minutes into the game Barrington still hadn't scored. "At this time last year we'd already been scored on," said Clark to Thomson. "Let's just keep it up."
But Barrington never relinquished control of the ball, and with four minutes gone they scored. With that goal it was obvious that any chance Young ever had at winning was gone. They weren't going to score a goal.
In the second half, Barrington coach Jeff Muhr, up by eight, put in his second-stringers. After that it was a competitive game. Well, sort of. Young never did get a shot on goal, but it managed to keep Barrington from scoring as much. The final score was ten to nothing.
A blowout can be a humiliation many coaches deal with by raging at their team. But Clark remained calm. He played all of his players, patiently pointing out their mistakes and encouraging them to play hard. "Don't forget what you've accomplished," he told them after the game. "You played hard. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Leave the field with your heads high."
Afterward, the team stayed to watch the second game, in which defending state champs Saint Charles beat Lyons Township. They stopped in town for dinner, then made the long trip home.
"I don't think the season was a failure because it ended in a loss," says Gipson. "To me, it's not just about winning. It's about having fun. Not everybody gets to play in Soldier Field. Not everybody gets to work hard and sweat it up and play together with your friends and go to state and play in front of the crowd. Hey, I had fun. It was great. This is something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.