Rarely does a team or an event captivate such a range of Americans as the Women’s World Cup champions did earlier this summer. It’s no surprise that the members of the East Carolina soccer team count themselves as some of the U.S. squad’s biggest fans, but they see the World Cup’s universal appeal as a promising sign for their sport and their upcoming season.
Junior defender Kim Sanford, who at one point this summer tried unsuccessfully to explain soccer’s offsides rule to her grandmother using salt and pepper shakers, said that she was inspired not only by the team’s skill in dispatching opponents on the field, but by their courage in the public arena.
“They won the games they were supposed to win, they played so well, and they had so many players play well,” said Sanford, who was named the conference Defensive Player of the Week early in the 2018 season. “It was just crazy watching the team develop, how they took on criticism in the press and all that, and it was really inspiring and kind of empowering that they weren’t backing down.”
Senior midfielder Marianna Shurina happened to be in New York City on the day the USWNT members were feted with a ticker tape parade, so she got to join in the celebration. Now that she and her teammates have reported to campus and are working out in anticipation of official practice starting on August 6, Shurina used the opportunity both to applaud their accomplishments and renew her determination to create some similar excitement in Greenville this fall.
Sanford, Shurina and junior Cashlin Copley agree that the 2019 Pirates team has already come together more cohesively than previous squads at the same point. The veterans, which include four seniors and ten juniors, are committing to connecting with the newcomers, and at every spot on the field the mix of old and new players leads to dynamic opportunities for the latter to learn from the former.
“We have quality players coming in, and we’re figuring each other out,” Copley said. “We’re hanging out more, trying to get to know each other better, and all of that is helping us build that chemistry quicker.”
“That’s the hardest thing to build up, is that trust between teammates,” Sanford said. “And I think we have that, and I think it’s definitely going to transfer onto the field.”
With head coach Jason Hamilton preparing for his second season at the helm, the Pirate players are confident that they can improve on a 2018 showing that already surpassed many expectations. Picked to finish last in the American Athletic Conference, ECU instead qualified for the conference tournament, defeated Southern Methodist in the first round on penalty kicks and finished the season 15-5-4 overall, 10-6-3 in the American and fourth in the standings.
It was satisfying to silence the doubters, Sanford said, but Hamilton has cautioned them that it was only a first step.
“They come in and think they’re going to walk all over us, but that’s just not the case,” Sanford said. “We’ve been training, we’ve been watching film, we’ve been putting in the work and now we get to show it. So when people underestimate us, I’m like, ‘OK, go ahead, underestimate us, but you’re going to go out with a loss.’ ”
After ten intense days of preseason practice, the Pirates will open their season with an exhibition game against Virginia Commonwealth on August 16. Six of their first ten games are at home in Johnson Stadium, and the players heard enough excitement among their own friends and acquaintances during the World Cup to believe that the wave of women’s soccer will reach their shores.
An event like the U.S. team claiming its fourth world title is exactly what the sport needs to bring in lots of new players, boys and girls alike, and Eastern North Carolinians who want live, competitive soccer can find it close to home.
“People that don’t even watch sports were talking to me about it,” Shurina said. “Women in sports are rising, I think it really is good for little girls to come out to watch us, after they watched it on TV.”