Kay Briscoe was desperate to get rid of the musty odor that clung to the seats and carpet of her minivan from years of shuttling two daughters to soccer practice and games. She tried vinegar, spray deodorizer and those little cardboard pine trees.
That was last summer. This fall, Briscoe's own mud-caked cleats are smelling up the back seat.
At 49, the Southern Maryland computer analyst has developed a taste for electric-blue Gatorade, learned the meaning of "offside" and figured out that shin guards come before socks.
Out of shape? Not terribly aggressive? No worries.
Briscoe and her college-age daughters are part of the Women's Instructional Soccer Experience, a league that has attracted a diverse group of newbies and experienced players in its first season. Weekly games are more about exercise, camaraderie and finding a sense of community in Southern Maryland's emerging suburbs than about winning.
For single mother Loretta Brown-Dunn, a recent arrival to La Plata, it is a way to connect with other women, something the 34-year-old put off last year while her son, Paris, now 6, got settled. For Merly Martinez, the mother of four and a homebody, it is a one-hour escape and a chance to trade parenting tips.
"I don't go out or hang out. I don't have time," said Martinez, who is 38 and lives in Clinton. "This gets me involved."
These women say the league's non-threatening emphasis on teaching was the draw. It is a club where the referees are a source of encouragement, not derision. Where no team is allowed to take a lead of more than five goals (scoring is halted). Where the coaches often play in the backfield to call out instructions to novice players.
A coach whom the league director considered too competitive and nasty was politely asked to find another club.
There have long been women's soccer leagues in the Washington area, dating back to the mid-1970s. There are teams in the District as well as in Montgomery, Fairfax and Arlington counties. An indoor league in Howard County is called Soccer Moms.
But veteran players in the region say the instructional bent at Turkey Hill Park in Charles County provides an entry point that most other leagues don't.
"It's something no one does particularly well, if they do it all," said Wanda Rixon, who has played in the area since 1977 and is commissioner of the Fairfax Women's Soccer Association. "If I were starting out today, I don't know where I'd go to play."
When Briscoe's children were first on the field, she had no interest in joining them. But there she was on a recent Sunday, trotting out in a bright orange jersey, her graying hair clipped and tucked into a scrunchie like her daughters -- now her teammates -- taught her to do.
That's not to say Briscoe wasn't petrified before the first game and worried she would look like "a clumsy old lady."
She ended up scoring the game-winning goal that day on a botched shot by daughter Katelyn, and she was hooked.
"There's something about hitting midlife, trying to recapture something youthful and just getting exercise back in your life," said Briscoe, who spends most of the week in front of a computer at her home office in Charlotte Hall.
That was what Gena Miller had in mind when she conceived of the league. The longtime coach arrived in Southern Maryland from Southern California seven years ago and was dismayed by the lack of options for women.
"If you're not competitive and you don't play softball, you're out of luck," she said.
Miller thought she would be lucky to attract 30 women to form three teams. Instead, 130 showed up.
The games are scheduled for Sunday afternoons so as not to conflict with youth sports or church. That timing lends itself to role reversals.
"As a mother, you're always on the sidelines cheering for your kids -- at home and at school," said Mary Layman, 37, of Accokeek. "It's nice to have someone cheering for you for a change."
Children instead of parents filled the bleachers last weekend. A proud 8-year-old, Maddie Bradley of Mechanicsville, edged onto the field to take a photo of her mother, Lindsay, the red team's goalie.
Daryn Lewis, who at age 7 has more soccer experience than her 31-year-old mother, shouted, "Go, Mommy!"
After years of calling out "Hustle!" and "Defense!" from the sidelines, these soccer mamas have a newfound appreciation for what their sons and daughters do.
"When you're out there trying to do what you've been telling them to do, it's a whole new ballgame," said Raven Lewis, whose Saturdays are spent watching her three children's games.
On each of the 10 teams, about half the women had never played in an organized game. The others are a mix of former high school and college players. Regardless of skill, the league is designed to give them equal time on the field.
After taking a dozen years off from soccer to raise three children, coach Cindy Olmstead has strained muscles that never troubled her in college. She pulled her left quadriceps during the third practice and last Sunday sported a new thigh support.
"My mother thinks I'm crazy," said Olmstead, 37, "because I'm old, I have children and 'What if I get hurt?' ''
LeAnn Bowler, who is 27, returned this fall to the sport she grew up with after giving birth to her first child six months ago. The smaller fields and shorter, 30-minute halves were suddenly more appealing than her old coed league.
"I knew I wasn't going to be able to run with the guys," she said. "There's just no way."
For many of the new players, the all-female environment was a must.
Wendy LeBeau, 36, of Indian Head had played a bit on a coed team in high school. "Women are more interested in building each other up," said LeBeau, a mother of two. "The guys, more often than not, wanted to be the stars of the show," she added.
"Playing with the fellas? Oh, no!" said Gayle Sullivan, a financial analyst from Accokeek. "You'd get smashed out there."
At halftime last weekend, Briscoe and her teammates were breathless and panting. Her daughters had both scored. She asked for oxygen, only half-joking. There were not as many substitute players that day, and Briscoe was accustomed to playing 10-minutes on, 10-minutes off.
"It's very strange. I never would have imagined I'd be doing this," she said from the sidelines.
When the game ended, the three Briscoe women gathered in the parking lot. They were already talking about signing up for the spring season.