After scoring 33 goals in her senior year at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., Erinn Garner wanted to play Division I college soccer.
"I was looking for a program where I could contribute right away and help develop something," Garner said. "I didn't want to go somewhere where I would just be a substitute. I kind of assumed I would be going to a small, predominantly white college, so when I found out Howard had a team, I was thrilled."
Howard Coach Michelle Street was thrilled as well. Street is looking for talented black players like Garner to help build the school's three-year-old program. Howard is one of just two traditionally black colleges that play women's soccer; the other, South Carolina State, begins its first season this year.
"When I first started recruiting, I would go to tournaments and talk to the players I wanted, regardless of their [race]," Street said. "A lot of them sounded really interested until they found out [Howard] is a black school and then they would just say, `No thanks.' It's not discrimination, it's just our reality. We have to recruit black players."
Street and South Carolina State Coach Sonia King recruit from a smaller talent pool, but welcome the competition. Other traditionally black schools are expected to add programs in coming years; meanwhile Howard will continue clearing a path for the others to follow.
"Nobody wants to travel the road alone," King said "It's great to know there is someone you can go to for advice. If there is somebody out there building a bridge, there is no need for you to swim across the river. I'm glad to see that [Street] has done such a good job."
Howard's trek has been one of small steps. After going 0-10 in 1996, the Bison registered three wins in 1997 and went 2-12-1 last season. However, with the addition of players like Garner and fellow freshman Jocelyn Fisher, both of whom played for elite club teams, Street believes the program is turning a corner.
"At first, a lot of people didn't know we existed," Street said. "For the first couple years it was just a matter of getting exposure. Now I get so many calls and letters from people all over the country from people interested in coming to Howard because of the education."
Street has played soccer for 21 years and attended Hampton, which didn't have a women's team. Now she struggles to find black women who, like her, go against tradition and play soccer.
"When you are young, you are just going to play whatever sports you see other people playing," Garner said. "A lot of my friends ran track or played basketball, but now that they see me on a scholarship at Howard, they are saying, `I should have played soccer.' "
And unlike the Howard men's program, which has always found talented players among Caribbean and African immigrants and first-generation Americans, Street does not have much of an international option.
"Often times a men's player who comes to the area from Jamaica will have the skills to compete in Division I," Street said. "That is not true for the women. American women start playing soccer at age 5 and are [on travel teams] by age 12. In the islands, most women are starting at 18, so I'm not going to expect them to be able to measure up."
Junior midfielder Amy Olsen, the team's playmaker, said Howard's morale has remained strong despite winning five games in three seasons.
"All my life, I've been the only black player on my team," Olsen said. "Coming here, I got to meet a whole team of players who are used to being the only black person. We really relate to each other."
Howard's players are realistic about the team's rate of improvement but take pride in charting new territory.
"We started out with some players who didn't even play in high school," senior midfielder Talita Keiller said. "We only had 13 on the roster, so all the girls played 90 minutes. For my senior year, this is great. I know we won't go undefeated or anything, but hopefully we will win five, six or seven games. Sometimes it's hard to explain to everyone else what we've gone through and why that's good, but I really feel like we're building something."