Women's Soccer Takes the Field at Caltech

 Photo: Matthew Lester

Photo: Matthew Lester

Last fall saw the official launch of Caltech's women's soccer program. Director of Athletics Betsy Mitchell, a driving force behind the establishment of the new program, says the players are "vocal and vibrant and engaged" and the addition of the program has had an energizing effect on the entire athletic department.

A perfect storm: "Soccer has to be one of the top three sports that high school girls play in this country," notes Mitchell. She says that the Institute recognized it needed a women's team in order to better serve its women students, and to attract the best women from around the country to Caltech as undergrads. That recognition was able to become a reality after Caltech's North Athletic Field was upgraded in 2017 with high-quality artificial turf, making it possible for the Institute to support the much-desired program.

Building a team: Finding the right coach was task one for Mitchell. Enter Taylor Houck, a onetime professional soccer player (playing for a team in Finland's Naisten Liiga league, the country's top league) and former coach at Oberlin College in Ohio. Houck jumped at the chance to come to Pasadena. "Starting a program at such an amazing school is something I'll likely never get to do again," Houck says.

 Photo: Matthew Lester

Photo: Matthew Lester

Making history: Once on campus, Houck enlisted the help of women who had been playing soccer on the men's team, and went on the road to attract talented high schoolers. The challenge, she says, was to find "competitive soccer players who could take our program to the next level quickly, and get them to take a really big leap of faith." Among those who took that leap was now-freshman Netra Ravishankar, who saw the team as "a chance to make history and make change."

But not all of that change came from outside of Caltech. For senior Caroline Atyeo the new team was a last opportunity to play women's soccer at the collegiate level before graduating. "I missed being a part of a team immensely. When I heard that Caltech was starting a women’s soccer team, I knew I wanted to be part of it, to help start something new and great."

Mixing it up: While some members of the 2017 team had years of experience, others were new to the game. "It was interesting to see people picking up the game for the first time, and fun to play with people at different levels," says Ravishankar, who has played soccer since the age of 4. The teammates bonded over the notion of being the first such team at Caltech, says Houck, and the upperclassmen were "so warm and welcoming because they finally had a place to play soccer."

First game: The team's first match under the lights with a full crowd was an away game against the University of Redlands early in September. This was a monumental moment, says Houck. "Immediately off the first whistle we were really matching their level," she notes. "It was exhilarating."

First goal: The team's first goal came against Alvernia University in Reading, PA, with freshman midfielder Krystin Brown scoring two minutes into the second half of the September 13 game. The team's first SCIAC goal came against the University of La Verne, with Krystin Brown again scoring in the September 25 home game.

First win: As the season went on, says Ravishankar, "we learned to trust each other and play together better." Their first win—an 8-0 victory—came in October during a game against Shepherd University, another first-year program.

Turning point: The team regards their game against Whittier College on October 9 to be their greatest victory of their season . . . despite the fact that they were edged out 2-1. The Caltech players were proud of how hard they pushed their opponents (who went on to win the SCIAC title) and of how close they came to winning. ""No one would expect a first-year program to play on such a competitive level," says Houck. "The women had a bravado about them after that." Freshman Krystin Brown agrees: "I think we started gelling and at the end of the game we all saw the future of the program."

Hopes and dreams: Looking ahead, Mitchell says her hopes for the team are the same as for the department's other 17 programs. "Our teams are competitive and becoming more so. They learn important lessons from both winning and losing. Of course, all things being equal," she laughs, "I'll take winning."

 

Spring 2018, SoCaltechJon Nalick