THE BUTT SISTERS WERE SO BAD when they started, they waited until dark to practice and still had to blindfold the ball. Some of the women couldn't have kicked a soccer ball into the Grand Canyon from a helicopter. Most had a death-defying habit of running into one another at full tilt.
"Did you see the movie Bad News Bears? This team was worse. They were so terrible it hurt to watch," remembers their first-year coach, who brought a new clipboard and a salesman's enthusiasm to the first practice. By the end of the season, after the team lost every game, some by scores that read like typographical errors, he was roaming the sidelines gulping Jack Daniels from a quart bottle.
"We were like a herd of elephants, all charging across the field together after the ball," says Chris Leibner, a 28-year-old special education teacher and a founders of this women's soccer team that gave Montgomery County a new standard for athletic ineptitude. "We weren't what you'd call jocks."
Leibner and friends were looking for a sport to satisfy their late-blooming fitness itch. They picked soccer after reading an article that pronounced it America's safest team sport. At the first practice one woman broke her leg. In the first game, a collision between teammates left one with a fractured nose and the other with a split ear. By season's end, nine players had been treated at area emergency rooms.
"I was afraid I'd look like a drunken sailor with a peg leg walking down the aisle," remembers Jackie Maloney, a 29-year-old nurse who broke her foot during a game three weeks before her wedding. "My husband wasn't overjoyed. He thinks soccer is a dumb game, anyway."
When the Butt Sisters were bad, they couldn't get much worse. But that was three years and a thousand offsides calls ago. This summer they were the shin-kicking Cinderellas of their league. This group of 22- to 30- year-old teachers, research assistants, law students and suburban mothers finished the season undefeated, won a trophy six feet tall and learned that you don't have to play rough, unless you want to win.
"We have a reputation for being the dirtiest team in the league," says Mary Crilley, a Washington researcher who has blue eyes and a freckled face that belongs on an Irish travel poster. "It took us three years to earn it."
The Butt Sisters got their name from an early tendency to turn tail at the approach of a speeding soccer ball. The nickname was not an immediate hit with the team. Most of them grew up in Chevy Chase and attended private schools where children of the upper- middle class were taught to honor good taste. The name stuck because it was a perfect fit for the raucous, sweat-stained camaraderie they discovered in team sport.
"Once we get a little dirty it's all over. We're out for mud and blood," jokes Cathy Diamond, a 30-year-old mother of 20-month- old twins. Diamond is a college graduate with soft brown eyes, straight white teeth and country club manners. When she began playing soccer she found herself following the team to dark, working class bars for cheap draft beer and loud toasts.
"Before I started playing, I would never go into some of the bars we go to now," says Diamond, who lives in Silver Spring and works part time at a plant store in downtown Washington. "But after a game you feel so good, so confident, you're ready to walk up to the bar and say. 'Hey buddy, gimme a shot and a beer.' "
If you haven't patronized your neighborhood bar in the last five years, you missed a revolution fomented by federal laws like Title IX and the fitness craze that gave sweat some sex appeal. On any weeknight, women in uniforms advertising lumber yards and body shops can be found occupying drinking territory that was once predominantly male. We're not talking fern bars -- these are places with pool tables in the corner and Conway Twitty on the jukebox.
The Butt Sisters took to the post-game partying faster than the on-field play. During that first season there were many sorrows to drown and aches to ease. Almost every game produced a casualty of some sort. Some of the survivors were urged by husbands, boy friends or parents to cut their losses and quit.
"We never considered stopping," says Crilley, who had her leg broken by the coach during the first practice. "We just went out and found new friends to play."
Crilley is the team manager, league representative and keeper of the phone list. Her enthusiasm and spirit are legendary and tend to overshadow her soccer skills. But then she learned early in life not to plan on a career in professional sport.
"I was in an international gym fest once," says Crilley. "I fell off the mini-trampoline."
The team has always had a few good athletes. The best is Guinevere Meyer, a slim, fast, 23-year-old who has scored half the team's goals in the last three years. Meyer, the daughter of a doctor and one of 10 kids, grew up diving competitively for Columbia Country Club and playing basketball at a playground near American University. She was a high school star at Georgetown Visitation, can still go to the hoop with either hand, and has a fade-away jump shot that has embarassed more than a few men.
But Meyer had never played soccer. None of the women had. The other teams in the league ate them alive. They improved every game, but there weren't enough games that first season to get any better than bad. While they became intimately familiar with emergency room procedure, concepts like field position and offensive strategy remained mysteries.
The next year, after their first coach begged leave for reasons of mental health, they found Fred Chanteau to lead them. Chanteau, a Bethesda psychiatrist, knew soccer and how to teach it. Almost as crucial, he spoke fluent French.
"All the other teams had coaches with foreign accents," says Laurie Pyne, a second- year law student at Catholic University. "We were always at a disadvantage."
Incredible as it seemed at the time, the Sisters started the new season with a victory. They would win two more by the end of the year. They still suffered long periods of confused play, but they also began showing occasional flashes of brilliance.
This year they played solid soccer. The women gifted with speed and power used their talent to score. The less athletic played position with discipline. Loose balls were contested and shins sacrificed. And the harder they played, the fewer injuries they suffered.
The team peaked in the second to last game of the season. With rain pouring down and mud underfoot, they dominated a team that was as bad as the Butt Sisters at their worst. The score was 5-0 at halftime when the referees called the game to a halt.
The final game was their toughest. The Sisters, average age 26, were matched against a team of pink-lunged high schoolers who grew up playing the game in youth leagues. For the first time in three years, players were tense before the game.
The play was fierce. Bodies crashed to the grass, curses were muttered and there were a few angry exchanges between opponents. Three times the referees stopped the game to warn players about the fine points of sportsmanship.
The Sisters won the game. 2-1. But when it was over, while the champagne was still being swigged, at least one of the players was questioning whether the victory was worth the cost.
"I didn't feel proud coming off the field," said Chris Leibner. "Those kinds of confrontations are what I hate about a lot of men's games. I'd like to win with social grace."
A few yards away, Cathy Diamond was holding a blonde daughter in her arms, and reveling in the moment that would have been impossible to imagine three years before.
"It is almost like a mob out there. You get caught in a wave of adrenalin. But, God, I love it."