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In the orange light of dusk, one day in late September, a party is in full swing at Totman Field. On the sidelines several hundred fans of all ages are dancing, drumming, cheering, and shaking the homemade noisemaker of choice plastic soda bottles with pebbles inside. And on the field the UMass and UConn women's soccer teams are tangled in epic battle.
Traditionally the top two programs in New England and among the best in the nation, these teams have developed a long-time rivalry, and they have not disappointed their loud and loyal fans this day. As the final seconds of regulation time tick away, the game is deadlocked at three goals apiece. Twice in the second half UConn has scored go-ahead goals, but each time senior Emma Kurowski has responded for the Minutewomen. Netting career goals 38 and 39 today, Kurowski has become the all-time leader in goals and points at UMass.
Ultimately, UConn will win this game in overtime, but the spirited play on each side keeps the pulsating crowd happy. The scene is a vivid illustration of why women's soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in America.
UMass head coach Jim Rudy calls it the "sport du jour." Primed by indelible television images of the U.S. winning a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 Women's World Cup, girls throughout the country are eager to play a sport considered too rough for them not long ago. At the collegiate level, gender-equity reforms have ignited a women's soccer explosion as schools seek female counterparts to heavily-funded football programs.
When Rudy came to UMass in 1988, fewer than a hundred colleges offered varsity women's soccer. Today there are more than 240 programs in Division I alone, and the intensity of competition on the field and in recruiting has skyrocketed.
On the phone with Coach John Daly of William and Mary, discussing the unpleasant idea of flying his team into the path of hurricane Floyd for a tournament in Virginia, Rudy waves a visitor into his office. A windowless space in the maze of hallways on the first floor of Boyden Gym, it's a combination of office, study hall, and den, warmly furnished with a couch and comfortable chairs in small pools of amber light. The fluorescent overheads stay off. The cinderblock walls are livened up with posters of past UMass stars, and made quietly impressive by a grid of framed certificates identifying each of the nineteen All-Americas Rudy has mentored here.
After eighteen years in coaching, Rudy has won a lot of soccer games 230, to be exact ranking him third among women's soccer coaches nationally. But a better gauge of his impact as a teacher is the number of his former players who have risen into coaching, too. More than twenty women who have played under Rudy are now coaching at the college level.
"That is more my measuring stick than these," says Rudy, gesturing toward the collection of trophies accumulated during his eleven years at UMass. "I'm in the business of empowering student-athletes," he says, and adds, "You just hope that along the way you win a few games to keep your bosses happy."
One of those empowered student-athletes, April Kater '91, is now head women's soccer coach at Syracuse. A three-time All-America at UMass, who in 1990 was awarded the Hermann Trophy which recognizes the best female soccer player in the nation, Kater also spent two years as an assistant to Rudy before accepting, in 1995, the first-ever head coaching position at Syracuse. Starting a varsity program from scratch was challenging, says Kater, but she was well-prepared.
"I give a lot of credit to Rudy," she says. "He gave me a lot of responsibility as an assistant coach." Considered an expert tactician who trains his players to think for themselves, Rudy also taught Kater to be a good teacher and recruiter skills that she now uses against him as head coach of her own team. UMass and Syracuse played to a 2-2 tie earlier this season and Kater called coaching against her mentor and her alma mater "bittersweet."
And how does Rudy feel about coaching against his former players? "Well," he says with a mischievous grin, "I just want to continue their education."
Surprisingly to some, Rudy is a strong supporter of proposals that UMass develop a Division I-A football program. He points out that schools like Syracuse, which is a member of the Big East conference, are adding women's soccer as a fully-promoted program largely bankrolled by football which, at the I-A level, generates lucrative contracts with television networks.
And the schools pouring money from big football into women's soccer are fiercely competing with Rudy on the field and in recruitment. They're building new facilities, hiring top coaches and offering enticing scholarships. "Some of those budgets are just unbelievable," says Rudy. "A lot of people feel I-A football would take away from other areas of the university, but I think it would be a feather in the cap of this school."
Rudy says, though, that "we're supported here to the level we can be without major football." And further support is forthcoming in the form of a new soccer field planned as phase two of a three-part project already underway on Stadium Drive near the Southwest dorms. The softball field built there last year was the initial phase. Future projects will include bleacher seating, locker rooms, a pressbox, and a facilities building. According to director of athletic development John Nitardy, fund-raising is set to begin for the nearly $2 million needed to begin phase two of the as-yet unnamed complex.
"It looks exquisite," says Rudy of the planned field. "It would help turn the tide on recruiting and provide us with a great facility."
On a sunny Saturday afternoon a few weeks before the match with Connecticut, the soaring popularity of women's soccer turned briefly stratospheric on Totman Field as one of UMass's favorite daughters was welcomed back to campus. The larger-than-life figure of Briana Scurry '95C, introduced as honorary team captain before a game against the University of Alabama-Birmingham, was greeted by wild cheers and chants from fifty or so local school girls clad in prismatic soccer uniforms and carrying multicolored banners. Shouts of "We love you Briana," and "Welcome home Bri" echoed across the field.
It was Scurry, of course, who made the game-winning save on an overtime penalty kick to cement the U.S. win against China in last summer's Women's World Cup. She is one of two women on the U.S. national team to have played under Rudy: Michelle Akers, the legendary standard-bearer for women's soccer, was a member of his squad at Central Florida in the late 1980s.
"Coach Rudy took me from being a good athlete to being a good goalkeeper," says Scurry modestly. She uses the wrong adjective: The word Rudy uses to portray her is "great." Scurry was a pillar of Rudy's UMass teams, crowning her collegiate career with a trip to the NCAA semifinals and the 1993 Adidas Goalkeeper of the Year Award. The coach and the former student are now friends. Asked to pose for photographs before game-time they comfortably embrace, smiling and joking like old pals.
Rudy takes pride in the community among players that's nourished from the moment they first lace up a pair of UMass soccer shoes. "We have a basic philosophy here of treating people well," he says proudly. "That means being polite, reliable, and as honest as you can be in today's environment." The strength of the coach/player relationship usually revolves around playing time, but while "You can't do great for everyone, but you try to do great for as many as you can," he says.
"The cool part," says Rudy, "is that three of my other kids came back to see Bri." Kim Eynard '93, Colleen Milliken '94, and Rachel LeDuc '96 all returned for the rare opportunity to see their famous teammate again. "That was meaningful, very meaningful," says Rudy, beaming.