A game 35 years in the making

The year is 1982. Ronald Regan is president, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the top-grossing movie, and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” is dominating the airwaves. Title IX has only been in existence for 10 years. The knock-on effects of so many women joining high school and college athletics won’t truly be felt for a few more years yet, and things like the WNBA, NWSL, and NWHL are distant fantasies at best. There is no US women’s national team, no pro women’s soccer league, no acclaim from World Cups and Olympics. College ball is all there is, and this first-ever official NCAA tournament is the absolute pinnacle of the sport.

The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, founded in 1971 specifically to govern women’s college sports, had their own championship tournament in 1981, when the University of North Carolina beat University of Central Florida 1–0 in Chapel Hill. Now in 1982 women’s soccer was finally under the umbrella of the NCAA, not walled off in its own gender-specific organization, and UNC and UCF were to face each other once again, this time in UCF’s home in Orlando. It was late November, gorgeous weather. There were other good teams of the era present like UConn, George Mason, and UMass, but UNC was the team to beat and everyone knew it. The Tar Heels were the reigning champs from the AIAW tournament the year before and during the ’82 regular season they went 16–2–0 with 104 goals for and seven against.

For some players, there was a sense that this tournament was more than just the peak of their careers. UNC’s Lauren Gregg was a senior in 1982 and had the sense, even then, that there was more going on than just a single game. “We felt an enormous sense of responsibility to put on a display of a great product and win,” she said. “1982 was like the real deal. So it was sort of a culmination of years and years and years of your work going, okay, this is a chance to have it matter in a real sense, not just because you love the game and because you have a collection of people who love the game, but it’s been endorsed by the NCAA.”

Janet Rayfield, now head coach of the women’s team at Illinois, was a team captain for UNC. She wasn’t originally set on UNC, but after Anson Dorrance poked around a US youth soccer meeting in 1979, Rayfield’s parents had a conversation with him while Rayfield herself was away working at summer camp. When she returned, her parents had arranged a visit to UNC; she brought her transcript with her, applied the day she arrived on campus, and was, in her words, “admitted to school on the spot.”

Rayfield was definitely aware that change was in the air, making the leap to a college program that seemed to take winning seriously. “There weren’t elite clubs,” she said. “The most I ever did was maybe train twice a week and play a game on a weekend and now all of a sudden I’m getting to train five days a week [in college].” (Of course, there was still plenty of progress yet to make. “My sophomore year we went to an invitational national tournament,” Rayfield recalled, “And we took the men’s long-sleeved jerseys with us because we didn’t have long sleeve jerseys to go play out in the cold weather in Colorado.”)

This was also validation for a generation of women who grew up in an era before encouraging young girls to play sports, develop competitive drives, and learn leadership skills was an accepted notion. It was more common then to wonder what was “wrong” with a girl who played sports, what defect in her attitude or upbringing would cause her to engage in a traditionally masculine pursuit.

Kim Wyant was UCF’s goalkeeper for that tournament and eventually went on to join the US women’s national team when it was first formed, starting in net in the WNT’s first ever international game in 1985. As a child, being a girl and playing sports set her apart. “It was still kind of a taboo, or a tomboy, she’s a tomboy type thing,” she said. “It was very odd when I was growing up to be out playing some sort of sport.” And now here she was, playing a varsity NCAA sport, about to contest a national championship.

Both teams had the usual pregame nerves. This was the biggest game of their lives — at least, until some of them went on to help form a women’s national program. But for now this was the height of their soccer careers. Some of them, like Gregg, saw how previous classes struggled to lay the foundation for their program, bearing painful witness to what it took to be recognized by the NCAA. They were aware that something was at stake in the big picture. For others, it was strictly a desire to win in the moment, especially among the younger players.

Emily Pickering, UNC’s center mid, was a sophomore in 1982, and for her the game was a culmination of everything she had been taught to believe about winning, even this early in UNC’s history, before anyone was even whispering “dynasty.”

“There was never any hesitancy or any doubt in my mind about winning, ever,” she said. “Which is why Anson [Dorrance] brought so many of us in, was that we were winners.” Still, Pickering had nerves; she always had nerves. She would be facing her friend Mary Varas, who was playing for UCF, which made it even tougher. But Pickering hadn’t had a great tournament her freshman year at the AIAW final, and now she had the chance to redeem herself and make new championship memories. And her friend Pat had driven down to Orlando from their hometown of Massapequa to see her play. So many decades later, Pickering treasures the memory of looking up from stretching, seeing Pat standing behind her, jumping up to hug her; Pat died just three years later in a car crash. On that fine day in November, though, Pickering was happy to have her good friend there, and was psyched to be traveling and having fun with her team.

Fellow Tar Heel Suzy Cobb Germain was looking forward to the challenge. This final was coming after a season of pasting other teams, sometimes into the double digits. They beat Duke 11–0 and 10–0 in the same season, and handed Warren Wilson a 12–0 loss. “We trained so hard in practice,” said Cobb. “We played every game like it was the last game in the world.” But UCF would be a real challenge.

UCF goalkeeper Kim Wyant was just a freshman at the time, albeit an outstanding one who was named team rookie of the year and tournament MVP. For Wyant, teen moxie outweighed her nerves. “I didn’t feel like this was a daunting task,” she said. “I thought this was wonderful, it was fantastic, it was a chance to perform. It was a chance to play again. It was a chance to play for the national championship.”

The championship game’s official attendance is listed as 1,000 in NCAA records, but as Wyant recalls, it felt a lot more intimate than that. “Probably the biggest crowd we’d ever played in front of at that point,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t anything more than a dozen people but it seemed like it was a pretty big crowd.”

The crowd wasn’t anything too wild by Rayfield’s memories either. “I remember there being an old school bus as the press area and some pretty limited stands,” she said. The game was broadcast on the radio, a rarity for the time, and Rayfield could definitely hear her father yelling from the stands when she listened to a re-broadcast.

UNC came out of the gate ready to pile on the pressure; meanwhile, UCF’s defense was struggling with injury. Linda Gancitano, UCF’s sweeper and ultimately the tournament’s most outstanding defensive player, had sprained both her MCLs the day before playing UConn. The trainers taped her up and she went back on the field for the final, trying to compensate for her lack of lateral movement with her field vision and communication. “UNC was very, very strong and they were coming at us very, very hard,” she said.

They held UNC to 0–0 in the first half, but the second half was when things began to break down. Gancitano subbed out and UCF couldn’t handle the defensive adjustment. Without Gancitano helping to organize in the back, UNC put two unanswered goals in the net, and that was the score at the final whistle. One team left to manage the disappointment of falling short at the final hurdle, and one elated and gratified that all their confidence and self-belief hadn’t been foolishly in vain. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re cocky if you can back up the attitude with results.

UNC got to go to Disney World the day after the tournament, but when asked for the fondest memories off the pitch from the tournament, none of the players, both UNC and UCF, could come up with anything except the feeling of being on that field with their friends.

“All family was there, my family, all my teammates’ family,” said Wyant. “Everybody came to support us at the game, and our friends on campus. And you got this monumental event that’s happening and you got to be a part of it.”

Rayfield was just grateful to end her college career on the pitch. She had already come off earlier, but Dorrance sent her up to sub back in with about 10 minutes left in the game, a gesture to her as a senior who would be leaving soon. “And the ball didn’t go out of bounds and it didn’t go out of bounds and it didn’t go out of bounds. And I’m watching the clock thinking I can’t end my career on the sidelines,” said Rayfield, fond of the memory now even though it must have felt gut-wrenchingly close at the time. The ball did eventually go out, allowing her to sub in — with about a minute and a half left.

“ I think my best moment was congratulating my teammates and my friends because they were my friends and they still are my friends today,” said Germain. “After that final whistle blows and you turn and you are looking at your best buddy and you’re like, yeah, we just won it.” Germain audibly swallowed back tears as she remembered it all.

35 years later, UNC has won 21 NCAA titles while the glory has faded somewhat from UCF’s program, although the Knights have, in a way, come around in a sort of strange circle: they’re now coached by Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak, World Cup winner, Olympic gold medalist, and former UNC midfielder.

The game itself is different too, as interest and development have slowly but surely progressed over the past three-plus decades.

“I don’t know if there’s some sort of tape out there from the 1982 championship,” said Wyant, now head coach of NYU’s men’s soccer, “But I bet if there was, if you looked at the game, the speed of the play, the type of athletes, the speed of the athletes, the size of the athletes, I’m sure that that would look much, much different than what you see now at the Division I level, where you have kids and players who have pretty seasoned soccer players who grew up playing soccer 20, 30 hours a week if not more from a young age.”

”Players understand the game better today,” said Gregg, who was head coach at UVA from 1986 to 1995 and spent some time coaching in the US Soccer youth setup. “They are overall more technical today. We look at our evolution with the women’s team, you know, getting Brandi Chastain to go from being a forward to a back was to bring skill into the back. Well now today I watch my daughter’s club team or you’re watching UVA alumni weekend this weekend, the backs are as skillful as your forwards. So the technical ability of the players is tremendous and significantly better than it was. The flip of it is, I think you have to be careful not to sort of say, well I walked both ways uphill in snow to school, but these kids have a little bit of everything given to them, from the parents to the clubs to the fields, and sometimes that rawness keeps you humble and reminds you that the best players don’t rely on any of that. And I think that sometimes the environment can be so taken care of that the players forget their own investment.”

From her position as head coach at Illinois, Rayfield was a little hesitant to say that the progress has been straightforward. “[Players] have access to an extreme amount of information about the game and they’ve had coaching for extended periods of time,” she said. “But their ability to process that information and make decisions at the speed at which the college game happens, I think that’s still a challenge for us.”

But Rayfield has certainly seen overall growth in the sport at every level. “Now you’ve got talent not just at one or two programs, but at 300 programs across the country,” she said. “You’ve got a lot of players who have put a lot of years into their training and have trained and competed and traveled and invested money and invested time in being good at this sport. I think that’s changed the game tremendously in the sense that there’s more parity, there’s more talent across the board, and there’s more at stake too. There’s more money being pumped into the sport. There’s more pressure on coaches. It comes with its good and its bad.”

That these women are now reflecting on the state of a sport that has seen interest in the United States explode with millions of registered youth players and New York City ticker-tape parades for a women’s senior national team that didn’t even exist when they first began playing is a testament to the foundation they helped build. They played in borrowed men’s uniforms; now some top NCAA programs receive free gear and apparel in preseason in what students colloquially call “Nike Christmas.” They hustled to have a place to practice more than twice a week; now a great college career can lead to a pro contract, humble as most of them are, and maybe even a shot with the national team and a trip to a World Cup or Olympics, with sponsorships from shoe companies and cable providers.

It all started decades and decades ago, even before the NCAA deigned to include women, to the years before that 1982 tournament when female college athletes had to fight just to get universities to allow them the label of “varsity.” It started with the girls who played high school and junior high and grade school sports in spite of the judgments of the society around them. It started with girls searching desperately for something they recognized, something to reflect back what they felt inside.

“There weren’t any team sport women athletes to idolize or look up to or who could feel the way I felt,” said Pickering. “I always dreamt of being in the Olympics but then I’d be like, well what could I do.”

What could she do? Pickering became the person she needed, who could show the players running behind her that there was a path forward. As the 2017 Women’s College Cup counts down to the final clash, once again to take place in Orlando, it’s good to remember the women of 1982, who couldn’t have known where the sport would end up but knew that they could build something better.