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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Jennifer LoCasale-Crouch remembers having to drag her twin daughters to UVa women’s soccer games at Klöckner Stadium.

That was before 9-year-olds Brooke and Madison joined the Girls Can Club, a program in which Virginia’s players mentor girls ages 7 to 12.

“Now they know when the games are, they know all the players, they’ve been on the field,” said LoCasale-Crouch, a research scientist as UVa’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

“Especially for my children, who tend to be pretty shy, to see them want to be part of that excitement is pretty fun to watch.”

The Girls Can Club is the brainchild of Skye Bruce. A former soccer player at the University of Massachusetts and George Mason, she later was an assistant coach at the University of Richmond.

Bruce, who owns a real-estate company in the Richmond area with her husband, David, wanted to match girls with college soccer players who could serve as role models on and off the field.

“I feel like the soccer community is unusual in that there’s a real sense of giving back,” Bruce said.

Two schools offered Girls Can Club programs this academic year: UR and UVa. Bruce’s daughter, Cali, is one of about 40 girls in the Spiders’ program.

At UVa, as at Richmond, this was the program’s first year, and around 100 girls took part in Charlottesville. Each Virginia player acted as a mentor to about four girls.

“To me, it’s probably the single-best community-service initiative we’ve done, and we’ve done a lot,” Cavaliers coach Steve Swanson said.

Swanson spends untold hours around his players. He can “see how great they are,” Swanson said, and wanted others to experience that too.

“I believe so much in our players and what they can offer,” Swanson said.

So he started looking for a program that would allow his players to interact more with the community. The timing was perfect for Bruce. When she called him last spring to pitch the idea of a Girls Can Club at UVa, “I was ready for it,” Swanson said.

“The nice thing for us is, it’s such a win-win. I think it’s great for our players as much as it is for the kids in the program. It’s a perfect marriage.”

The Girls Can Club is not, Bruce points out, a “traditional mentoring program where they meet one-on-one once a week. It’s group mentoring.”

Club members are invited to UVa’s home games during the season and to other events over the course of the school year. One night, the girls ate dinner with their mentors in John Paul Jones Arena’s dining hall.

Another time, they attended a workshop at which they learned about proper nutrition. On another occasion, the girls and their mentors attended a women’s basketball game together at JPJ, where club members also met former UVa rower Lindsay Shoop and saw the gold medal she won at the Olympics.

“Soccer is something we all have in common and what bonds us,” UVa junior Colleen Flanagan said. “But what we’re teaching them is about more than soccer.”

LoCasale-Crouch, who played club soccer at Florida State, recalls the first Girls Can Club event her daughters attended. It was held immediately after a game that Swanson’s team lost at Klöckner.

“I was so impressed with the presence of the UVa players,” LoCasale-Crouch said. “They talked to the girls afterward about how sometimes when you work hard, you don’t reach your goal, and how you deal with that.

“That’s been a real strong lesson they’re carrying forward, not only in their own soccer backgroundsm, but also in their lives.”

Sophomore defender Katie Carr grew up in Williamsburg, where she often spent time watching older athletes compete.

“I would be around teams, but only because my dad was a doctor, and I’d be around William and Mary, but I never had the bond I think we can have with these girls. Being able to have a relationship with [older players] would have made my life when I was that age.”

The final Girls Can Club event of the academic year was held in mid-April. Club members often stay in touch with their mentors, though, and Carr accepted an invitation to watch one of her girls’ rec-league soccer games on a recent weekend.

Carr said her experience as a mentor “was really, really good. You don’t really get a chance to get out very much, being in school and with soccer occupying most of our time. You don’t get to interact that much with fans or the community.

“The girls were awesome. They were so enthusiastic, and it really means a lot when you’re on the field and you hear kids yelling your name.”

The girls whom Flanagan mentored were among the youngest in the program. She’s pursuing a degree in elementary education, so “it’s great for me,” Flanagan said.

“Most of them came to every [home] game. After every game I got to see them and say hi to them and their parents.”

From her girls, Flanagan said, she’s received “drawings and letters. And I know some [teammates who mentor] the older groups, they get e-mails.”

Among the topics covered in the club’s workshops were healthy living, goal-setting and persistence.

“Everything that we talked about you can use in athletics,” Flanagan said, “but it also applies to anything. Hopefully they understand that.”

Some girls do. Others — such as the youngsters Flanagan mentors — may not find such serious matters as interesting.

“They’re like, ‘Goals? What are goals?’ ” Flanagan said with a laugh.

UVa will offer the club again in 2011-02, Swanson said. Count Brooke and Madison LoCasale-Crouch in.

“Absolutely,” their mother said.

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