We Were Playing for Ourselves

7 February 2024
By Chris Randazzo ’83

How Women’s Soccer Came to Carleton—and Triumphed

Women's soccer players celebrating a championship victory in 1981
The 1981 team celebrates winning the Minnesota State Championship, November 8, 1981: Leslie Kingman ’82, Dana Bennett ’84, Karin Thron ’83, Sandy Dabora ’83, Deb Rowland ’85 | Photo by Suzanne Kingman

The Carleton women’s varsity soccer team completed a record-breaking season in 2023, making it all the way to the NCAA Division III playoff tournament. Today’s team can trace its origins to a scrappy group of athletes who launched women’s soccer at Carleton on the uneven terrain of Pigeon Field 45 years ago. United by a desire to compete as a team, this group of trailblazers oversaw the transition of the program from a club in 1978 to the varsity team that won the first ever Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship in 1982. To get there, these determined women had to navigate a raft of challenges from coaching shakeups and equipment shortages to a snake camped out in goal.

Six years after the 1972 adoption of Title IX, the landmark legislation requiring equal access to athletic opportunities regardless of sex, Carleton offered 11 varsity sports to women athletes. Soccer was not one of them, whereas men’s soccer had been a varsity sport since 1963. Pat Lamb, Carleton’s first director of women’s athletics (1970–85), was a strong advocate for expanding access to physical activities and sports for women, so when Emily Barr ’80 and Hania Richmond ’81 approached her to organize a women’s soccer team, Lamb approved it, albeit at the club level.

Interest in the team was high; the skill level, however, was not. “Many of us had little or no knowledge of soccer,” recalls Patti DeFazio ’82, “at best maybe a brief introduction to it during a high school gym class.”

Leslie Kingman ’82 was one such player. “The only experience I had before arriving at Carleton was the summer I was 17,” she says; without a girls team at Minnetonka High School, she played in an adult league with her mother. The rare exception, Sandy Dabora ’83, played four years as a student at Edwin O. Smith High School in Storrs, Connecticut. “My high school started a club team in 1975 when I was a freshman, and it went varsity my junior year.” The following year, the team went 19–0 and won the Connecticut girls soccer state championship.

Initially the Carleton club team’s practices and games were held on Pigeon Field. Once used for Rotblatt and intramural Ultimate games, it has, in recent years, been absorbed back into the Arboretum. Located to the southeast of Bell Field, Pigeon Field offered less than ideal playing conditions, Kingman remembers: the turf was uneven, there were no chalk sidelines and no actual goals. “We used cones to mark the goals.” At one memorable practice after nets were installed, a snake took occupancy in one, limiting the practice to half the field.

“As a club, we initially got no funding from the school,” DeFazio remembers. “We bought our own team T-shirts, etc. We didn’t even get gym credit, even though we practiced multiple days a week.” Players took responsibility for finding competition and scheduling games, transporting the team using school vans, and arranging for box meals for away games.

That first team in 1978 experienced what became a coaching conga line, beginning with members of Carleton’s men’s varsity team. Joe Calhoun ’84, Ed Cummings ’81, Dave Groundwater ’81, and Paul Yeomans ’81 each volunteered their time with the support of John Dyer-Bennet, coach of the men’s team. Beth Dyer Clary ’81 recalls Yeomans was determined to get players in peak shape, running the team around Bell Field and up and down Evans Hill.

In 1979, the team’s coaches were Bob Bobesink ’80 and Bob Woolsey ’70, then assistant dean of students, with Groundwater helping with coaching the following year. Then, when SAGA food service and other campus workers went on strike in the fall of 1980, a certain political science professor volunteered his time as well. “Paul Wellstone, our sometimes coach, had to sneak in through the woods to come to practice, since he didn’t want to be seen breaking the strike,” remembers Rachel Kalin ’83.

Soccer’s growing popularity drove a sharp increase in the number of women who came out for the 1980 team. Interest, as Dyer put it, “doubled overnight!” The greater numbers inspired Kingman, who had taken over the scheduling of games from Dyer and Cathy Stern ’82, to approach Lamb about taking the team from club to varsity. Noting the heightened enthusiasm and talent level, Lamb agreed, saying at the time, “One can’t really justify the other sports as varsity sports if soccer isn’t among them.” She approved the hiring of a coach, a former soccer player from the Soviet Union named Victor Branitski.

He turned out to be the wrong coach. “We basically rebelled against Victor and asked that he be removed,” DeFazio recounts. “We found him to be very divisive and non-supportive and felt he was hurting the team rather than helping it. I think the school said something like, ‘It’s either Victor or no coach.’ So we said, ‘OK, we can coach ourselves and do better.’”

They chose Kingman and Dabora, already co-captains, to lead them, and the team responded by scoring nine goals in the first two games of a three-game winning streak. The duo instituted conditioning drills and practices five days a week. Aided by Stern, who stepped in to assign substitutions when Kingman and Dabora were on the field, the team flourished. Key to Kingman and Dabora’s success as coaches was their ability to make the game fun, regardless of one’s skills. Cathy Maggio ’83 remembers that despite not being one of the better players “my teammates were unfailingly supportive and encouraging. Being on the team was a very fun, positive experience that meant a lot to me.”

Along with fun came success: Carleton defeated crosstown rival St. Olaf to win the first—and only—Minnesota State Soccer Championship in 1981.

Why did the team respond so well? “When Leslie and Sandy took over, suddenly there were no men involved at all, and no men cared very much about what we did or didn’t do, except for our male student friends, and that energy worked in our favor,” says Sarah “Lois” Lane ’84. “We had nothing to lose so we were unburdened. We were playing for ourselves, no one else. We were playing to exist.”

After graduation, Kingman returned to coach the 1982 team, with Dabora and Michele Schwartz ’84 as co-captains. With stable leadership, a core group of returning players, and an energetic cohort of talented first years and sophomores, the 1982 team finished with a 14–3 record and won the first-ever MIAC title.

Lessons learned on the soccer field had practical applications for many players later in life. “I had a massive stroke and had to learn how to read, write, walk, and talk all over again,” Heidi Wulczyn ’83 says. “I’ve had issues walking ever since, but one thing I am really good at because of my experience as a goalie is falling down safely.” Sarah Alger ’83 shares that “being on the team taught me what it took to—and that I could—get in shape and compete as part of a team, an experience that continues to impact my life today.”

Despite the early success of the varsity team, recognition as trailblazers was late in coming. In April 2021 Carleton notified the women athletes who played on those first two varsity teams of their eligibility to receive a varsity letter. In 2022, when recommended by her 40th Reunion Committee, Kingman was inducted into the ‘C’ Club Hall of Fame. Dabora received the same honor one year later.

Dabora is grateful for the recognition, but notes, “It is very true that championship soccer does not happen without the entire team on board and ready to go,” adding, “and if it weren’t for the founding team in 1978, we would not have had the chance to do what we did.”

1978 Women's soccer team
1978 Women’s Soccer Club Team: First row: Lee Roderick ’82, Kristin Kennedy ’82, Yolande Lindsey ’82, Marg Tozer ’82, Heidi Bredenbeck ’82, Cathy Stern ’82, Leslie Fagre ’81, Patti DeFazio ’82, Aaren Purcell ’82, Lauren Baker ’82   Second row: Theresa Paone ’82, Becky Halbe ’81, Barb Pitkin ’81, Lisanne Pearcy ’82, Leah Ruby ’82, Caroline Vickery ’82, April Elsasser, ’81, Leah Sash ’81, Jill Hodges ’82   Third row: Hania Richmond ’81, Cathy O’Dell ’82, Bridget Smith ’81, Leslie Kingman ’82, Mary Murphy ’81, Joan Ostergren ’82, Lauren Shiloff ’82   Fourth row: Paul Yeomans ’81, Emily Barr ’80, Dave Groundwater ’81, Joe Calhoun ’84, Ed Cumming ’81   Not pictured: Beth Dyer ’81, Ruby Dunkelberg ’82
1982 Women's soccer team
1982 Varsity Women’s Soccer Team: Front row: Michele Schwartz ’84, Sandy Dabora ’83   Second row: Susan Little ’83, Deb Rowland ’85, Leslie Bingham ’86, Sonia Valdivia ’83, Kathy Lee ’86, Stephanie Lofgren ’86, Ruth McDonald ’83, Pam Kernan ’86, Mary Porter ’85   Third row: Karin Thron ’83, Sarah Lane ’84, Carrie Wren ’86, Kathy Thomas ’85, Cathy Maggio ’83, Gretchen Green ’82, Heidi Wulczyn ’83, De Jensen ’84   Fourth row: Kris Simonson ’86, Pat Davis ’86, Anne Van Valkenburg ’85, Beth Palmer ’86, Laura Mathews ’83, Salli Wood ’86, Leslie Kingman ’82   Fifth row: Karen Peirolo ’86, Julie Smith ’85, Jane Tornatore ’84, Alice O’Hara ’84, Dana Bennett ’84, Denise Kokaras ’84, Jennie Rehm ’86   Not pictured: Monica Drane ’86, Ann Fidler ’85, Liz Gump ’85, Andrea Howland ’85, Karen Ogren ’84, Rachel Pagones ’87

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