Grantsville High School’s girls soccer team practices are typical of what you could expect from a soccer team in a small, rural American town.
There are 15 girls scrimmaging on the field, some with yellow practice jerseys draped over old T-shirts and some with blue. The girls all have cleats, shinguards and everything else soccer players would have.
In this practice, the team is working on game-like situations with six players on the offensive side and eight plus the keeper on defense.
It’s fitting the offense benefits from a defensive-minded exercise: Grantsville obviously needs to work defense after being mercy-ruled in the last game, but practicing offense without a numbers advantage is a must as well since the Cowboys often devote so much manpower to defending.
But this type of coaching might never have happened.
After a few seasons coaching the boys team at GHS, Travis Lowry took over the girls program as well.
“I saw the rotation of coaches,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was fair, honestly. The girls were neglected. The coaches that were there, I think they were good coaches and they tried, it’s just tough to stick when you have seasons where you win three (games) consistently, or zero. I wanted to give them consistency.”
Girls who try out for Grantsville soccer are basically guaranteed a spot on the team. Because numbers are so few, everyone is a much-needed addition to the squad and no one is relegated to the bench.
This year’s captain and lone senior, Chelsea Simpson, is happy to have nearly 20 teammates.
“At first it was just you show up and there’s not enough players to make cuts,” Simpson said. “(Now) we have enough players to make two teams, as in varsity and JV, but either way you don’t really get cut because we don’t have enough players to do that.”
Junior defender Erica Boulden, a second-year player, said she never played organized soccer growing up. Her father, who trains dogs, purchased a bunch of soccer balls for them as toys.
Boulden played with them as much as the canines did.
“With the dogs it was playing keep away,” she said. “I play defense, so it makes me feel like I’m doing the same thing back home playing with the dogs. It makes me more comfortable.”
While low numbers has negative consequences such as diminished rest time and a smaller talent pool to practice against, Simpson enjoys the positives.
“I think it’s good because you get more minutes and it’s fun to stay in,” said Simpson, who played comp soccer for much of her life. “You see other teams and they switch out every five minutes, and I wouldn’t like that because I like being able to play most of the game.”
It’s difficult playing against girls who grew up in competition — comp — leagues.
“I feel intimidated,” Boulden said. “But then some professionals didn’t play when they were 5, so I think I’m OK.”
A vital first touch
Grantsville has players who received their first-ever taste of soccer at practice. Lowry estimated as many as nine of his players never played organized soccer before.
“I think we’re doing really well for what we’re getting coming in, and they’re doing really well and catching on quickly,” he said. “But it’s tough to go against these schools where the girls play year-round against us, y’know, that are playing their clubs and indoor.”
Lowry’s coaching staff spends a lot of time teaching basic techniques.
“Trap, correct foot position on a shot, locking your ankle, things like that,” he said. “We spent a lot of minutes last week on how to kick. It puts us behind, as far as development. The drill we were running when you first got here was just a basic wall pass. That’s new to a lot of these girls.”
“We get a lot of girls that don’t know offsides,” he continued. “We have to teach them those things. Positioning even, where to go on the field.”
Nothing is more important to learn than the vital first touch.
“That sets up the shot, sets up the pass, sets up your dribble,” Lowry said. “For most players… their first touch is always too big, too hard. They’ll take it incorrectly and they’re in a bad position and they don’t even have a chance to succeed on the next touch.”
A place in rural America
Grantsville covers roughly 20 square miles and is home to about 10,000 people. Nearby, Stansbury Park has a fraction of the land area and yet more people. According to census data from 2010, the median Grantsville household income is about $60,000. It’s a stark contrast to Stansbury Park, where it’s more than $90,000. Stansbury High School opened in 2009; GHS celebrated its 100th graduating class last year.
Grantsville is a rural town. Stansbury Park may as well be a suburb of Salt Lake City.
Lowry said there’s a difference in “soccer culture” between suburbs and rural towns, and more money in a program can make a difference.
“I think you can look just at who ends up in the finals at state,” he said. “Ogden has been awesome the past couple years. Even just here locally, where the population is, is Stansbury. That’s where it’s growing.”
On the Grantsville soccer field — it’s not called a “pitch” in rural America, that’s a term reserved for baseball and softball — it’s easy to tell which team is from where.
“I don’t think it’s good athletes,” he said. “We go out to Price, Carbon. They’re a little behind. There’s more importance towards football, baseball.”
Tennis is huge in Grantsville, evident from the banners in the gym that ran out of room to record new titles; Softball is important across the county — a softball complex was built recently between Tooele and Grantsville, partly to help alleviate crowded fields in the county; GHS baseball team won a state championship last year.
Grantsville’s soccer field, squeezed in between the tennis courts and softball diamond, is symbolic of the sport’s emphasis — or lack thereof.
Not just about wins
Grantsville soccer has never been known for wins. The Cowboys have one this season, a 2-1 victory over Juab. They were mercy-ruled by Stansbury High School on Tuesday.
“We want to win,” Lowry said. “We take losses really hard.”
A year ago, Grantsville didn’t win a game — the Cowboys came close in the opener and took Carbon to extra time on the road with two goals. Scores of 6-0 or 8-0 were common.
They did better in 2012, winning three and drawing with Union in a scoreless season opener.
In 2001, the inaugural season, most of the girls were playing soccer for the first time ever, and no goals were scored. Eight came the next two seasons combined.
Before this season, the program recorded 14 wins in 13 seasons: Two ties in 2003. Three wins, two ties in 2004. Four wins in 2005. Two wins in 2006. One win in 2008. Three wins in 2012.
“Even though we don’t win a lot, we have fun,” Simpson said. “People shouldn’t switch schools or not join our team just because we don’t win a lot, because it’s really just fun.”
It’s common knowledge athletic transfers happen. While those who don’t know the full details of a specific transfer situation are unwise to make assumptions, the fact remains: Some student-athletes at schools in Tooele County live within the boundaries of other high schools.
“Especially the people that switch to Stansbury and stuff,” Simpson continued. “It shouldn’t be all about winning. Like if you want to get scholarships and stuff, I understand. But yeah, we could be a lot better if people didn’t not join or switch.”
While Simpson was careful not to mention any names, it is noteworthy to know Stansbury’s leading scorer, Michaela Didericksen, is from Grantsville and scored five goals in the match against the Cowboys, though she is by no means the only out-of-boundary athlete in the county, nor is Stansbury High the only school with athletes from another boundary.
Lowry was quick to dispel excuses.
“I like the girls we have. We have good athletes throughout the team.” Lowry said. “We get to a point where we need to give someone a break or a sub, and there just isn’t an option.”
At Grantsville, soccer is not about winning, though no one would refuse a championship.
“It’s more about development,” Lowry said. “If they go to school with a friend, that’s worth doing all this.”