Commodores From the Startby Chad Bishop
The story of how Vanderbilt women's soccer was born
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt women’s soccer program has become one of the best programs in the Southeastern Conference in recent years and at different points throughout its history.
Student-athletes from across the country and from abroad come to Nashville for the chance to wear the black and gold and to continue a growing legacy of winning at a championship level.
It wasn’t all that long ago, however, that the Commodores could only dream of the success witnessed in today’s modern era. And in the mid-1980s, a group of pioneering women never imagined Vanderbilt women’s soccer would become the force it is in 2020.
This is their story. A story of determination, perseverance, stubbornness and tremendous pride.
This is the origin of Vanderbilt women’s soccer.
FROM CLUB TO COMMODORES
Vanderbilt had a women’s soccer team in the 1980s.
Well, sort of.
The University featured a women’s soccer club. A group of students who played the game for the love of it and to keep the competitive juices flowing after their prep careers had ended.
In 1985, the news began to trickle through campus that those women would help start Vanderbilt’s newest Division I sport – women’s soccer.
“What it felt like to me was that there weren’t enough women’s sports at Vanderbilt and other SEC schools that met the requirement of Title IX,” Liz Teague recalls. “And when we became a soccer program I’m not sure that the school was quite ready to put the resources in.
“At Vanderbilt at the time there was basketball, swimming, golf and tennis (for women). Then there was a variety of clubs. So when we started coming up from a club and they said, ‘We’ll let y’all be varsity,’ it was like, ‘We’ll LET y’all be varsity.’ There wasn’t a lot of support.”
The excitement of becoming a full-fledged Division I program was mixed with the struggles of being ill-equipped and ill-prepared to handle the reality of such a transition.
Randy Johnson was charged with coaching the team. Problem was he was already the head coach of the men’s soccer program.
There were times when assistant coach Ken McDonald or assistant coach Alex Robertson led practice or when the ladies simply ran the training sessions themselves. There wasn’t a lot of serious thought given to the future of Vanderbilt women’s soccer – maybe not a lot of thought at all given to the team in the moment.
“Not having institutional support I don’t think diminished the experience for me at all,” Melissa Thurmond said. “We had a wonderful time. At the moment I was just all-in. Wherever the team was going I was going to be there. If there was practice, we would show up.”
Thurmond, who had studied abroad in France as a junior, came back to campus in 1987 as a senior and was invited out to practice by Dana Grubesic (née Kanter). When she heard the sounds of soccer and the smell of the grass and thud of the ball she fell in love again (Thurmond figured her career as a keeper had long ended after a nasty ACL injury in high school).
Teague didn’t want any accolades or to even earn a varsity letter, expressing how she just truly enjoyed doing something a little bit crazy with the classmates who would become her best friends on campus.
Mary Wilder (née Brailsford) grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and played for the Spartanburg High School team – the boys’ team that is.
“We hung in there. We were strong girls and we were going to make it work and we loved soccer,” Wilder said. “Soccer was my life. I had to fight on the boys’ team (in high school) so I was going to make it work at Vanderbilt.
“It’s amazing on campus now just talking with the current soccer players that are there. They couldn’t believe some of the stuff I was telling them with what we went through.”
Vanderbilt having a women’s soccer team meant the program had to actually play scheduled matches against other Division I competition. The Commodores were overmatched – and not put anywhere near close to a position in which to succeed.
“I always felt that we were just kind of along for the ride,” Grubesic said. “I remember being at McGugin Center and thinking I ought to walk up to the football players and say, ‘You ought to be nice to me and treat me well because I’m the reason you still have a scholarship.’
“I don’t know that it ever changed while I was there, to be honest.”
Vandy’s women were handed uniforms the men’s team had worn in seasons prior. Old, faded, ugly, Charlie Brown-fashioned jerseys that didn’t even fit properly.
The squad rotated between three practice fields – whichever was available that day and not being used by the football team or men’s soccer team – and had to avoid a landmine of ankle-twisting divots and holes. Sometimes coaches and equipment would be available at the start of practice, sometimes it wouldn’t.
A writer from the school yearbook came out once to write a feature story on the team’s transition from club to Division I. The author never spoke to any of the female students for the piece choosing to interview the male coaches instead.
A local magazine came out to feature Wilder and her goal-scoring abilities. When the piece was published the adjoining picture was definitely not Wilder.
When it came time to travel, the women piled into a van or shared a bus with the men’s team. Vandy’s women often just went wherever the men were going and played the women’s team from the same school the men were scheduled to play against.
“I got really angry once,” Grubesic said. “We went to play Emory (in Atlanta) and both the men’s and women’s teams were playing. Our game was before the men’s team and we were late. We had no time to warmup. I certainly told (Johnson) what I thought about not getting us to the field on time so that we could have a sufficient warmup. I remember getting off the bus, maybe being able to go to the bathroom, and then having to be on the field to play. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’
“We lost that game and I feel like had we had a proper warmup and chance to get our bearings we might have won that game. That made me angry.”
The Commodores paid for their own food and cleats, dined at all-you-can-eat buffets alongside the men’s team when traveling together, went to movies to kill any spare time on the road and bunked four students to a hotel room. And they soaked up every moment despite the treacherous conditions.
Even if they felt like no one was watching, the commitment to the cause never changed.
“I don’t want to diminish anyone’s role. I think people were just working in their context,” Teague said. “But I definitely got the feeling the women’s soccer team kind of came on the scene as a club and then we were there to meet the requirements of Title IX. I’m not sure the school had thought very hard or strategically on how to support that happening.
“We did a road trip into the midwest and we played really well. I remember coach Johnson being like, ‘Wow, girls, where is this coming from?’ He said something like that. And in my mind I’m like, ‘We have been here all along coach. Where have you been?’ I remember feeling that.”
In 1986 and 1987, Vanderbilt had a combined record of 9-18-3. In the first seven matches of ’86 the Commodores were outscored 51-0 and lost all of those contests.
Those results are accessible. Finding individual numbers from those early days is impossible.
“Nobody kept any stats. Not even at the games,” Wilder said. “The coach would even ask me how many goals I scored. Like, was nobody taking any stats on anything? It was like they didn’t care. Nobody cared.”
But along the way the Vanderbilt team was growing and learning and watching. A trip to mighty North Carolina stood out in 1986. The Tar Heels had already won three national championships at that point and finished second in 1985.
They beat Vandy 9-0 in 1986 en route to yet another national title.
“I remember being at the field at UNC and the UNC bench had an actual bench and water bottles on the bench for each of the players and trainers and coaches – you could tell what a good program could be like,” Grubesic said. “Ours was not that.”
In 1987 the Dores went 4-1-1 in their final six matches. The 1988 season saw the team go 8-5. The tide was clearly turning thanks to so many who paid their dues with sweat, tears and a even a little bit of blood here and there.
Johnson began to pay more attention to the squad and, in 1989, McDonald took the reins of the program on a full-time basis. Then a significant piece of paper in Vandy women’s soccer was signed.
“It was a pretty big deal to me at the time – maybe even more so than being a high school All-American was getting that first soccer scholarship at Vanderbilt,” Janis Rose said. “But then as the team matured and we got more players that could really play I didn’t even really think about being the scholarship athlete or who was or who wasn’t. We just all gave it our all to play our best. It made the team really tight-knit.”
Rose, a track and soccer star at Germantown High School, was announced as Vanderbilt women’s soccer first scholarship recipient June 13, 1988 (truth be told, the funds came from the women’s basketball program for that first season before Rose received money from both soccer and track and field the rest of her career). She came to the West End knowing she was joining a team of athletic and competitive women, not necessarily student-athletes who had been tactically trained in the sport.
Her addition to the team started a shift in mentality and commitment that would manifest itself for years to come.
“By the time I was a senior we were recruiting athletes and the level of play was significantly improved in terms of how we played soccer and the competition that we were playing against,” Rose said. “I think we were more developed as soccer players – it wasn’t just kick and run.”
The early days of women’s soccer in the SEC included just Vanderbilt and Alabama before Arkansas eventually joined before the close of the 1980s. Beating Alabama was of utmost importance to the Commodores so that they could (maybe half-jokingly) call themselves league champs.
A match against Alabama was so important that the Dores went to great lengths to make victory happen.
“My final game was against Alabama. It was pouring rain. I had a broken hand,” Wilder drifts off into one of her fondest memories. “They cut a tennis ball in half and put it on the back of my hand and wrapped it. They wouldn’t let you play if you had a cast on. Oh, and I had a torn thigh muscle. I had all these things wrong with me.
“It was pouring rain and we were playing in the mud. I remember I scored a goal and then I heard my ankle pop. They had to take me to the hospital because they thought my ankle was broken. We ended up winning that game, but I came back to my dorm room and I was covered in mud from head to toe and I was on crutches and my roommate looked at me and goes, ‘What in the hell happened to you?’ I said, ‘We beat Alabama!’ That’s all I cared about. I did anything I could to beat Alabama.”
On Nov. 15, Vanderbilt traveled to Clemson for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores lost in heartbreaking fashion as the Tigers advanced via penalty kicks 5-4 after a scoreless regulation and overtime.
As tough as that result was to stomach, Teague and Thurmond were in the stands to watch it live and make another memory they will never forget. The two were moved by a program at the forefront of NCAA competition.
“It was a thrill to watch such talented kids play. They’re great,” Thurmond said “When I saw them get off the bus and walk up those steps I felt like a kid because I’d been watching them online. ‘Oh look there’s her! And there’s her!’ I knew all of their names and I didn’t want to be that weird person, but I wanted to give them all high-fives.”
Said Teague, “They all came out and there was a DJ playing music and they all started dancing and pumping each other up. That reminded me of our days. We were always together. Getting on the bus to go to the game, those were the funnest road trips.
“Those girls piled out of the bus and I just got so excited because they were happy and having fun and it put me right back there to that feeling. It was especially cool to see here they are in the NCAA Tournament again and then to see the coaching staff coming out – to see the organization of the warmups and the whole approach just seemed really great.”
Grubesic, an attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Rose, who is still involved in the game by coaching youth soccer coach in Sacramento, California, keep up with the team as best they can. Grubesic recalled taking her youngest son to a Vandy match once when the team was in the region and Rose records and watches games online when time affords.
As the wins and championships have begun to pile up over the years the pride for those who started it all swells that much more.
“It’s like a strange sisterhood,” Rose said. “When you’ve played a sport, especially at Vanderbilt and the soccer program, you know the hours of training required to keep fit and to keep at the top of your game, but also academically to be able to achieve in the classroom. It takes an enormous amount of organization and self discipline.
“I wear Vanderbilt gear all the time. I advertise for the school because I’m proud of it.”
Grubesic, a self-described, “brown-haired, Jewish girl from New Mexico,” explained that soccer was her saving grace while trying to fit in so far away from home. The state of the program means so much to her now because it meant so much to her then.
Teague, who fronts the Liz Teague Band in Asheville, North Carolina, relishes the success of the current squad knowing she was part of a unit that laid the foundations.
“We didn’t want any special treatment,” she said. “We just wanted a chance.”
As Vanderbilt begins preparing for the 2020 season nearly 35 years after the birth of the program, the current team can walk campus with heads held high knowing it has the reputation as one of the top programs in its conference, its region and its sport. They have their foremothers to thank for that.
The pioneers of Vanderbilt women’s soccer changed the game.
“My senior year they had a banquet for all sports at the end of the year. It was in the middle of exams. I called someone to see if she was going and she said she was and someone else I knew was going. I was totally exhausted and should have been studying,” Thurmond said. “I didn’t shower. I found a dress, got myself sort of together in the middle of cramming for exams and went to this banquet.
“The soccer team had their own table and I remember running into a friend from my freshman dorm who played basketball. And women’s basketball was huge at the time and she was one of their best players. She was so happy to see me. She said, ‘You’re on the soccer team?’ She seemed so impressed and wanted to know all about us. And then it felt legitimate. We felt like we belonged. And we were finally a part of Vanderbilt athletics.”