'Wednesday night is soccer night'
These women give new definition to the term "soccer moms."
Oh, they've done their share of carpooling and cheering for kids from the sidelines at soccer matches, hockey games and baseball tournaments.
But this is their turf. Er, pitch.
Every Wednesday night, Soccer Planet, the indoor soccer venue in north Urbana, hosts a recreational soccer league for women age 30 and older.
By day, these players are businesswomen, teachers, writers, designers, coaches, and moms who work at home.
Come Wednesday night, they're athletes. And the kids are the spectators.
"I love it," said Julie Dorner of Champaign, a member of the Bruisers. "I always want them to be open to trying different things. This was so different for me, and I love it."
The league, founded by Soccer Planet owners Graham and Liz Berry, provides an athletic venue for soccer veterans and newcomers alike. But it's also become a social outlet for these busy moms, one night a week they can bond with teammates, get their competitive juices flowing and afterward enjoy a drink with friends.
The league is open to anyone — even those who've never kicked a soccer ball, like Dorner and teammate Trish Gulley of Champaign.
Gulley and another friend had heard about the league starting up in fall 2011, before Soccer Planet even opened. They couldn't find information online, so they drove out to see it in person.
Graham Berry gave them a full tour. They told him, "If you do something for women, we want to be a part of it."
They formed a team and started recruiting friends. Dorner's first response was an immediate "no."
"I had literally never kicked a soccer ball in my life," she said. "And then Trish kept talking, and I thought, 'You know what? Why not?'"
They had both taken up running and competed in a half-marathon that year.
"We were all getting a little bit fitter and feeling like maybe we had enough stamina for the soccer field," Gulley said.
"Little did we know," Dorner laughed.
Soccer, they discovered, does not require the same skill set as distance running.
"You have to run so hard and fast to get to the ball, and it's such a confined space," Dorner said. "I'm surprised more people don't mess up their knees."
The good thing is that most teams have plenty of players, and substitutions are encouraged, so they're often on the field for a few minutes at a time. But there were a couple of games where Dorner had to play the entire 44 minutes.
"I thought I was gonna get sick," she said.
This is the second full season for the soccer league, which started in November 2011. The seven-week sessions are offered year-round.
The Berrys wanted to encourage the stereotypical soccer mom to play. They first reached out to moms of youngsters in the Illinois Futbol Club (formerly Little Illini Soccer Club) and offered several clinics. About 20 women showed up, some who'd only watched their kids play, others who had competed in high school or college but hadn't played for years.
"They had a great time," Graham Berry said.
The first two teams, the Bruisers and the Hot Flashes (now the Femme Strikers), grew out of those clinics. Liz Berry, a soccer mom who played basketball and tennis for Centennial High, was an original Hot Flash. Two more teams quickly joined: Chaos and the Hot Mamas. A fifth team, the Skirts, followed in fall 2012.
How do these working moms carve out time every week for soccer?
For one thing, there are no practices, so it's just one night a week.
"Everyone knows that Wednesday night is soccer night," said Dorner, who works at YG Financial. On those nights, her husband is in charge of ferrying their three children (ages 12 to 15) hither and yon and pulling dinner together.
Teams recruit extra players, so there's plenty of womanpower available even if someone can't make it. That appealed to those who wouldn't have committed to a full season, said Skirts coach Jill Youse of Champaign, who has 20 players on her roster.
Many of the Bruisers have outside jobs, and several travel regularly, so absences crop up. The goalie, gynecologist Tamara Helfer, is sometimes called away for a delivery.
One night a few weeks ago, Gulley had to sub as goalie for Helfer, and 20 seconds into the game the ball sailed past her into the goal. When Helfer arrived, Gulley immediately took herself out. "I kept saying, 'Please don't let us lose by one point.' And we did."
The experience helped her understand what her kids go through in their team sports, and how to help them be better teammates. Her boys — Elliot, 6, and Ethan, 10 — play hockey and soccer, and daughter Olivia, 14, played volleyball and soccer. Now, when they have a rough game, she knows they feel they've let their team down.
"It really hit home that night: There is such a huge psychological aspect to every team sport," she said.
The two moms also used to get after their kids if they didn't think they were hustling enough during a soccer match. Now they know better.
"When you're out there you just reach a point where you hit a wall," Dorner said. "I had no idea that's what was happening with them."
There is plenty of turnabout here. The kids offer lots of advice.
"I thought my mom would kind of run funny, awkwardly, so I gave her some pointers," said Casey Dorner, 13.
They also critique the games. Olivia Gulley said her mom has turned into a good defender, and Julie Dorner has dropped her "flailing arm thing" in favor of a "concentration face," and now attacks the ball, Casey said.
"They've definitely improved," Olivia said. "They weren't strong before. None of them knew how to play. Now they're one of the best in the league."
Kids from all the teams routinely show up to watch their moms compete. Players said it's fun for their children to see them in a different light — as something other than working mom and wife.
"The first time I came downstairs in my uniform the entire family was like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Dorner said. "Now, I honestly feel like they're kind of proud of me.
"I'm an athlete-mom now."
Gulley added, "I hope that they will take a little bit of that into their own lives and not be afraid to try something new."
The soccer league is different from book clubs, play groups and "girls nights out," players said. For some women, it's the first time they've played on a team.
"Everybody's so encouraging to each other," Dorner said. "You walk in, and everybody's like 'Yay!' I feel like I got to know everyone so fast, just because you are kind of bonding. Plus it's just a very outgoing group of women."
Players from different teams often know each other, and several teams have regular postgame tables at Huber's, Billy Barooz or other local bars. (The Skirts have been known to play a game called "toss the tenderloin" that, yes, involves throwing a steak.)
"All of a sudden you have 20 friends because you're on this team," Youse said. "They'll all cheer for you every week, no matter what you do. They've all got your back."
The games are not exactly genteel. These women are serious about their soccer.
"It's so fun, because we are always trying to keep our rowdy side and competitive side in check. This is finally a time we can unleash it," said Youse, who played Division 2 soccer for Truman State University in the late 1990s.
The league also includes a couple of former All-America University of Illinois volleyball players (Mary Coleman Hambly and Kristin Scherr McClure) and the Illini women's soccer coach, Janet Rayfield.
Rayfield, who played for the University of North Carolina, said she's competed in other competitive men's leagues around town, but this league is "a fun thing." She has no interest in seeing it become super-competitive at the expense of those who are just learning. Right now it seems to be a good mix, she said.
"It's a group of women who are getting exposed to the sport," she said. "It's about seeing other people enjoy the sport I've enjoyed all my life."
Dorner and others also worry that the league might get too competitive.
But Berry said he wants to keep it accessible. He might create a separate competitive league if he can get two or three more teams to join. The men's indoor league has an "ultra competitive" Division 1, a slightly less competitive Division 2, and an over-30 league.
Dorner and Gulley plan to keep playing — as long as they can avoid injuries.
"By having this every week, I feel like I'm more motivated throughout the week to run and do other exercise because I know I need to be ready to spring," Gulley said.
Soccer Planet, 2310 N. Willow Road, U, has more than 82 indoor soccer teams, from preschool to over-30 leagues. The youngest player is 18 months, and the oldest is 63.
Membership fees are $20 for an individual and $40 for a family, which provides access to all programming.
Women's over-30 league
Fees: First session $75, second session $65, third session $55
Schedule: Seven-week sessions, one game per week (teams can start throughout the year, and players can join at any time)
Guest fees: $15 per game to try it out
More information: 367-9999; soccerplanetcu.com/