Girl Power

Roles: Copywriting, Content Strategy, Media Relations

'Girl Power' was a long form feature story published in the Mustang Messenger during my time at Bishop McNamara High School about the excellence of female athletics at the school.

Following longer pieces on a male alumnus drafted in the NBA, two male alumni drafted in the NFL, and a senior at the school who set the national record for wrestling wins in high school, the piece was both meant to highlight the athletes covered and their groundbreaking performances, as well as provide parity in coverage, as the Mustang Messenger magazine served as a recruitment tool for both prospective parents and alumni donors.

The piece was accompanied with a concurrent effort for TV and local media coverage, picked up by local news station Channel 8 and Monica McNutt.

I've included the interview from Channel 8, as well as the entire feature story below.

Athletic Director Anthony Johnson's office is located in the Fine Arts and Athletics Building, at the end of a narrow hallway. Adorning the hallway are jerseys of the professional athletes that have graduated from Bishop McNamara High School. Among those athletes are Tyoka Jackson '89, Cam Chism '08, Jerome Couplin III '09, Brandon Coleman '10 and, most recently, Saniel Atkinson-Grier '09. Saniel is the first female athlete to go pro from Bishop McNamara High School, and her track uniform stands in stark contrast to the enormous football jerseys.

Her accomplishment is mirrored over in the School's main gymnasium, where her banner hangs next to one that proudly boasts of the 2003-2004 women's basketball team that went 27-1 and was ranked first by USA Today for nine weeks. Of the four Gatorade State Players of the Year banners, three of them are for female athletes – Kalika France '03, Iman McFarland '05, and Taylor Brown '11.

"The truth is," said Mr. Johnson, "that when we merged schools with La Reine High School, we didn't just become a coeducational school, but one suddenly filled with magnificent female student-athletes." Among the Hall of Fame plaques outside of his office, eight belong to La Reine alumnae.

Being surrounded by reminders of female accomplishment on a daily basis has shaped Mr. Johnson's view of the female athlete. "Men's sports are generally viewed as more dominant, but at Bishop McNamara that has simply never been the case," he said.

"Just look at what's going on this fall – we've got a woman's soccer team that's suddenly vying for a WCAC title, a girl kicking field goals on the football team, and an alumnus track and field star who we'll probably see in the next Olympics. Bishop McNamara is all about girl power."

Women's Varsity Soccer 

This past summer, two headlines were emblazoned across the sports world: the Men's World Cup and the absence of Landon Donovan from the Unites States' national team. The described "all-time leading goal scorer in the history of U.S. soccer" didn't even make the reserves.

Goalkeeper Melanie Stiles '16, center attacking mid Anissa Mose '17, forward Paige Stephenson '17, and defender Kayla Foster '17 counted themselves among those that didn't lament the former captain's absence. Rather, they felt as if the outcry overlooked the fact that Donovan was nowhere near the top of the list for the U.S. "First off," Stiles exclaimed, "Landon Donovan isn't even the greatest goal scorer in the history of U.S. soccer. That's just so completely wrong – Abby Wambach is."

Stiles is right. Donovan, in international competition, has scored 57 goals. That is the most for any male competitor, but doesn't even fall in the top five for female competition domestically. Abby Wambach, the captain for the women's team, currently holds a mark of 167 international goals – nearly three times that of Donovan.

Mose, Stephenson, and Foster chime in with agreement. "Everyone went crazy when the men's team made it to the elimination games, but our women's team will probably win the world cup next year!" Mose adds. She's not wrong either.

The injustice the four see is that women in sports aren't perceived to be as competitive, capable, or athletic as men. They intend to change that perception, however. Far from the Barbie doll caricature, the four agree that gym class is for working out, sports are for everyone, and fitness is essential to life. "I hate when girls say 'this is only gym class,'" Stiles noted. "Everyone is surprised when we're super competitive, but just because we're girls doesn't mean we can't go for it. Being a girl has nothing to do with our sense of being competitive." For the record, Stiles can squat 315 lbs. – a mark so high even her teammates rib her for it. "She's a monster, but that's awesome," joked Stephenson.

When Edgar Rauch '94 returned to coach the women's varsity soccer team three years ago, a year before Foster, Stephenson, Mose, or Stiles joined the team, his first order of business was to hold a team meeting. Playing collegiate soccer at Shepherd University and working with local elite clubs had conditioned Rauch to approach the game with a winning attitude.

His first question for the team was to ask what their goal was for the season. During the previous year, they had won no games, so he was curious to learn what the girls wanted from the upcoming season. "They told me, after some deliberation, that they wanted to score a goal this year," Rauch said. "And not one goal per game, but one goal in total." The year before Rauch arrived, the team had not only gone winless, but also failed to register a goal for the entire season.

The second year was better, but also difficult. Rauch recruited three freshmen – Mose, Stephenson, and Foster – and got transfer goalkeeper Stiles. While the team was more competitive, "it was still too young," Rauch said. "Our freshmen class was very talented, but they were half the size of their competition and just got pushed around way too much." The team ended up winning five games, but still wanted more. "All of a sudden we went from a team that wanted to score a goal to a team that wanted to be a competitive name in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference."

This year has been, as Rauch calls it, "a different story." With the conclusion of the WCAC regular season, the girls finished 12-8, including exhibition games, and qualified for the playoffs. The team is not a tournament favorite, but with closely contested games against the likes of top-10 nationally ranked Good Counsel, it is expected to advance deep into the tournament.

When not playing soccer for Bishop McNamara, they compete for the Elite Clubs National League – a collection of the best soccer players from the state. Over the summer, Stephenson, Mose, and Foster, members of the Under-15 team, won the America Cup National Championship while Stiles, a member of the U-17 team, finished as a runner-up.

The level of competition at the national level, Rauch said, elevates their play as well as their teammates' play. "By playing at that level, they come back and are able to share their experience with their teammates to make everyone better. By having that experience on the team, suddenly I have four more assistant coaches who are constantly holding players accountable, helping players develop, and encouraging a more focused team dynamic."

Stiles, a junior, has already committed to Clemson University to play Division One soccer in college. The goalie averages 10 or more saves per game and is resolute in her approach towards helping the team receive the recognition she feels it deserves. "I want to win every time I go out there," she said. "And why wouldn't I think we could win the WCAC tournament?"

(Wo)Men's Varsity Football

Staples in the Bishop McNamara weight room include power racks, treadmills, and Nicole Yeargin '16. The former gymnast was always bigger and stronger than girls (and often guys) her age. "I was a little self conscious about it until I came to Bishop McNamara and was introduced to weight lifting by Mr. Jeffrey Southworth '05," she said. Her love for lifting blossomed into a full-fledged addiction as she began to feel much more comfortable with her athletic frame.

Her work ethic was so impressive that Keith Goganious, the head coach for the varsity football team, took note of the junior's strength and invited her to come out and try kicking a football for his team. "I'd never kicked one before," she said, "and to be honest I was really bad at first." Also a member of the varsity soccer team, Yeargin was well acclimated to kicking, but never such an oblong object. "It was nothing like a soccer ball," she said laughing.

Yeargin began training in June 2014 and, by August 30, made her first extra point against Mount St. Joseph to become not only the first female football player in Bishop McNamara's history, but in that of the entire WCAC. But that wasn't enough.

"I don't want to be a good kicker for a girl – I want to be a good kicker," she said. Yeargin has already hit kicks of up to 35 yards in practice and, by year's end, is aiming to hit kicks of over 40 yards.

Key to her role on the team has been her noted toughness. Against Liberty Christian Academy, Yeargin set up for an extra point. She was able to get the kick off, but due to a missed block, as she watched the ball sail, she was leveled by a defender. "I wasn't really watching but the next thing I knew a guy had wrapped up my legs and I was going down," she said. "I hit pretty hard but then just laid there for a second thinking 'oh my god I just got hit!'" As the team and Coach Goganious gasped, Nicole collected herself, and ran off the field in embarrassment. "Everyone thought I was dead because I'd hit the ground, but I was fine," she said. "I was just embarrassed that I'd been tackled!"

While her kick veered off target, her resilience was well noted among her teammates. "Everyone was sort of surprised I was alright," she said. "Once they figured out I was ok though, everyone started ripping on me."

While the season hasn't gone quite the way she's wanted – "I'm no Vinatieri quite yet," she says – Yeargin is planning on continuing to play through the rest of high school. She hopes the in-game experience, along with another summer of practice, will allow her to compete at a higher level next year. "I won't stop. I don't like when people say girls are weak or complainers. I'm not weak and I don't complain." 

High Jump(er) 

"I was such a girly girl when I was growing up," said Saniel Atkinson-Grier '09. "I was in cheerleading, I hated going outside, and I was all about looking pretty. I had no interest in ever playing sports because the idea of sweating was not appealing to me."

"This was all until one of my cheerleading friends approaches me and was like hey do you want to try track and field?" Atkinson wasn't pleased with the idea, but decided to humor her friend. "I made my friend promise there wouldn't be bugs," she said.

Once she started running, she realized that she had a natural talent for it. "I started running, jumping, and all that and I was beating the boys," she said. "I said to myself, 'hey this is pretty fun.'"

Almost 15 years later, Atkinson still insists that her hair and make up be right, but now she does so in preparation for international competition as a professional track and field athlete. A high school Nike All-American, Atkinson attended the University of Georgia where she was a multiple time All-American and NCAA finalist before graduating and deciding to go pro.

As a professional athlete, she has traveled all over the world competing. She has also set the loftiest goals a professional athlete can set: the 2016 Olympics. Competing for Jamaica, she most recently finished seventh at the Commonwealth Games. "The thing about track and field, jumping, and any event is that at the international stage it's always outdoors," she said. "So if I can jump in the rain and I final at the Olympics, I could be the next gold medalist."  She adds, "and I can jump in the rain."

The difficulty she has experienced as a female athlete has been one of sustaining a professional athlete lifestyle while competing in a small-market sport. "Track and field is huge at the Olympics, but what people don't' realize is that there are huge competitions every year rather than every four," she said. "And female track and field certainly doesn't land you the money that men's football would."  The challenge, for her and her fellow female athletes, is marketing her skills as an athlete and her look as a woman. "If you look at female athletes – Serena Williams, Lolo Jones, Allyson Felix – they're all incredibly talented athletes, but also beautiful women. As a female athlete, it's difficult to be successful without having both."

Hesitating, she added, "But it's worth it. Female athletes, especially now, have the ability to be their own pillar of strength and set their own limits rather than be limited by anyone. I was born to be an athlete, and that's what I'm going to be until I can no longer compete."

A Continuing Tradition

As fall sports head towards their conclusion, another girls' team is set to make a meteoric rise: the women's basketball team. Headed by Frank Oliver, the team that graduated no seniors last year, finished second in summer league play and has kept their pace by winning all of their pre-season matches.

Practicing under the USA Today banners that celebrate the past successes of the program is a constant reminder both for Oliver and his players.

"It's hard not to see those banners up above when you're practicing and playing," he said. "And that's a good thing – we know it's been done, so we know that it's something that can be done again." As Johnson would put it, "just another year of sports for the female student-athletes of Bishop McNamara High School. Go Mustangs!"