Sophie Reveal had the ball, space, and the goal well within striking distance, growing closer with each touch.
It was one of those moments freshmen can only dream about — a wide open varsity chance as exciting if you convert it as it is gut-wrenching if you don’t. So Reveal took a touch more, aimed and fired, hoping to send the ball straight through the goal posts.
Just a little more leg and maybe it would’ve sailed through. Instead, the ball died just under the crossbar, slid over the outstretched hand of the goalie and into the back of the net.
Reveal was aiming for a field goal, not for the goal her team had already punctured 10 times or so in the first half. Not the goal Wilson High’s opponent had little hope of defending from the Tigers’ offensive onslaught.
Self-imposed challenges of leg strength, like the attempted field goal, and of discipline, like mandatory minimum numbers of passes, are often the only real challenges the Wilson girls’ soccer team faces when it plays D.C. public school competition. The Tigers haven’t lost — nor really been challenged — since 2008, and find themselves preserving the morale of competitors that aren’t on their level, and likely won’t be any time soon.
Wilson is one of five teams in the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association’s girls’ soccer league, joined by School Without Walls, Banneker, Bell and Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley tried to field a team but didn’t have enough interest to sustain it. Roosevelt’s team is in its first year. Banneker is building, Bell showed promise in recent years but hasn’t challenged this season. Walls is perennially the league’s second-best squad, second by a wide margin both in terms of distance from the top and from would-be challengers below.
Of those schools, Wilson is the largest by enrollment and the school known for having a consistently strong girls’ soccer team in a league where consistency is often defined by existence, rather than wins. Unlike teams at other league schools, Wilson’s is made up predominantly of players that have played or still play high-level club soccer.
“You don’t want to run up the score, but you don’t want to make it obvious you’re not running up the score, either,” senior Eileen Connor said. “We practice what to do, but it’s hard if you end up in front of the goal wide open.”
Options in that situation include shooting wide or playing the ball back as inconspicuously as possible. Sometimes, Wilson Coach Dan Drickey, last year's All-Met boys’ coach of the year in the spring when he coaches at Hayfield, has the Tigers play a player down to challenge themselves and give their opponents more of a chance. He says coaches have expressed gratitude for his team’s efforts to stop scoring, though it’s not always possible in all cases.
“We just try to challenge and get as much out of those games as possible, but it’s hard,” senior Tasiana Paolisso said. “Sometimes, it’s not really fun for anyone.”
School Without Walls experiences both sides of the competitive imbalance, beating Banneker and Roosevelt handily but often being blown out by Wilson.
“It’s hard with varying skill levels [of DCIAA teams] because it’s the other way around with Wilson, and sometimes we’re the one getting beat pretty badly,” senior Molly Charles said. When a game is competitive “we have a common goal, we get excited about it. It’s fun to have good competition where we can play our hardest and not worry about making the other team feel bad.”
The DCIAA has made efforts to lessen the blow for teams on the wrong side of those scores, most recently instituting a 10-goal mercy rule ahead of Wilson’s semifinal matchup with Banneker on Wednesday. Up 7-0 with 20 minutes to play, the Tigers began their possession-based game and finally opted to drive home their game-ending 10th goal one minute into the second half.
Good thing they did, as the league was so confident that the girls’ game would end before the full 80 minutes were up that it scheduled Wilson’s boys’ team’s playoff game to start exactly one hour after the girls kicked off on the same field.
But even new rules aimed at making big losses easier to stomach can't give the league’s less experienced teams a chance, nor do they provide any illusions to those teams that they might have one.
“Obviously they’re high school kids. If [big losses] are going to be in their faces, it’s going to be there. But you can tell by the fact that they’re still here that they’re not just hurt. They’re still showing up,” Theodore Roosevelt Coach Antwi Obimweh said.
The lack of competitive balance is not limited to girls’ soccer. Wilson’s volleyball team recently won its 11th league title in 12 seasons, and the gulf between the top and the bottom is just as wide across multiple sports beyond football and basketball.
D.C. Public Schools recently settled one Title IX civil rights complaint and still faces another surrounding allegations of inequitable athletic facilities and opportunities for female students . But as 11-0 games between Walls and Roosevelt reveal, the challenges don’t end at creating opportunities for girls: the real challenge is making them meaningful.
Coaches and schools citywide are ramping up efforts to not only create opportunities, but get female students excited about taking advantage of them.
“You have to understand the demographic dynamic,” said Jason Gross, who attended Walls and also coaches boys’ travel soccer in D.C. “Kids don’t grow up playing soccer in some communities. I grew up in a black community in Northeast. It’s not something we grew up playing. . . .
“Even with your best effort in those communities, it’s really tough for them to be competitive with girls that play travel soccer. . . it’s not a good thing all around because the teams at the bottom don’t have much to look forward to.”
DC Stoddert Soccer League, the district’s largest recreational and travel soccer organization, is doing its best to bring the sport to all of the District’s communities. At elite travel levels, Stoddert’s clubs provide need-based scholarships to players that make the team but can’t afford the fees or travel expenses high-level soccer requires, a common practice for clubs in the area and one travel director Evans Malyi says has “absolutely” resulted in the participation of D.C. families that may not otherwise be able to play.
But though Stoddert and similar organizations, like Sports on the Hill or D.C. United’s youth program, are working to provide opportunities to players of all socio-economic backgrounds, the talent they’re developing doesn't spread evenly through the city’s public schools.
“We have a lot of players that go to Wilson High School,” Malyi said. “As far as the other [D.C. public schools], not really. It’s either Wilson or the private schools.”
DCIAA athletic director Stephanie Evans said in an e-mail that the league’s administrators hope their efforts on the middle school level, where the city had nine girls’ soccer teams last season, will help raise those less-experienced high school teams to the level of their now-dominant competition through the creation of a feeder system that Evans says is a “step in the right direction for the future of soccer.”
The Tigers say their competition against private school teams has been invaluable. Those experiences are especially meaningful for the Wilson seniors, who can’t remember playing a league game close enough for the outcome to be in doubt.
“Well, there was that game where Walls scored first this year,” one reminded her teammates.
“Yeah, but that ended up 4-1,” another clarified. “That was probably the closest we’ve had.”
A week ago, in a tournament at Episcopal, Reveal again found herself with the ball on her foot, this time with a game against Paul VI on the line. Her strike again snuck under the crossbar and into the back of the net, this time giving the Tigers a 1-0 overtime win.
Saturday, their march of domination through the DCIAA came to an end — for this season — with an 8-1 win over Walls in the league championship match at Cardozo.
“In the past against [Walls], we’ve played a little lackadaisical against them, but today we came out hard from the get-go, which I think can be attributed a lot to our seniors,” Drickey said. “They decided their last game in DCPS was not going to go down that way.”
Walls hung with the Tigers early, conceding just one goal in the game’s first 20 minutes, that a deep strike from senior Clare McLaughlin, before scoring a flurry of goals before halftime, including two from junior Rya Griffis. Wilson will play Georgetown Day on Monday at 4 p.m. in the first round of the DCSAA state playoffs.