Girls soccer in Sarnia has grown in leaps and bounds

With shovel in hand, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley joined a groundbreaking ceremony at Lottie Neely Park on Aug. 20, 1999. Others pictured include Gord Best, Walt Kulczycki and the late Lowell Barnes. Submitted Photo

Tara Jeffrey

Gord Young remembers driving across Sarnia-Lambton every summer, simply trying to find a soccer pitch for girls.

“The boys had all the soccer fields,” said the longtime board member of the Sarnia Girls’ Soccer Club and field co-ordinator in the early 1990’s. “There were times when I booked fields and they’d try to kick us off.”

That’s when he and a few other soccer dads formed a committee hoping to find a field to call home.

“For eight years, we had meetings trying to figure out where we could put the girls,” he said, noting they were eventually able to use the soccer pitch at Northern Collegiate.

“That was basically our home field for a long time. We helped to keep them green, we put a sprinkler system in for them… because we had nowhere else to play.”

The SGSC was 20 years old by then, and growing fast. A two-month pilot project led by Lena Ward and Janice Cain in 1974 had 60 girls.

Ten years later, the club had 400 girls on 40 teams, and by the late 1990s had grown to nearly 1,800 players, 800 referees and 70 sponsors.

The club left the Sarnia Minor Athletic Association to become an independent, non-profit entity, and began searching for a permanent home.

The group landed on eight acres of farmland bequeathed by Mrs. Lottie Neely for “a recreation park for the children of this community.” It signed a 25-year lease with the city, raising money through sponsorships, raffles, fee increases, donations and government funds.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in 1999, and the eight-field facility named Veterans’ Memorial Fields opened to more than 2,200 women and girls the following year.

Since then, the board has invested more than $1 million, adding mini-fields for younger players, additional parking, tile drainage, field irrigation, benches and shelters and grass maintenance.

Today, Sarnia’s is one of only four all-female soccer clubs in Ontario.

“We’ve got a lot of history here,” said Susan Carnegie, who joined the board 30 years ago, after coaching her seven-year-old daughter. She has served as president since 2010, was awarded the Meritorious Service Award from the Ontario Soccer Association in 2016, and developed a mentoring program for referees.

“We’ve had Syrian families that came here, and the girls were never allowed to play in their home country,” she added. “And now they’re playing and the parents are coaching.”

Board members were surprised to learn their home at Lottie Neely, which is shared with the Bluewater Gymnastics Club, has been named a potential site for a new indoor multi-sport facility.

“It came as a bit of a shock,” said Carnegie, who has concerns about traffic, parking, displacement of fields and accessibility. “They didn’t’t factor in how it would affect the girls’ program; it would disrupt what we have here.”

The club fully supports the new facility but doesn’t believe it belongs at Lottie Neely, she said.

“We are proud of what we do but are not boastful. We just hope we can contribute to the community in a positive manner and empower girls to feel that they matter — that they are not second-class citizens anymore, because we actually have fields they can come to.”

Some board members have stuck it out from the early days because their daughters gained so much. One is treasurer Pete Thomas, who signed his four-year-old up in 1999 and joined the board shortly after.

“Seeing a shy, timid kid really grow and blossom, becoming a referee, becoming empowered, and really grow as a person through this club… she dragged me into refereeing and I’m still doing it,” he said with a laugh.

Another is retired Sarnia Police Chief Phil Nelson, who signed his daughter up in 1991 and watched her play from age eight until she left for university. Nelson said people often ask why girls have the facility to themselves.

“You go back to the visionaries whose daughters played… they realized the need for equality in sports,” he said, noting studies that show girls are twice as likely as boys to drop out of sports by adolescence. “There’s a lack of self confidence. They don’t like being judged.”

And that’s not the case at Lottie Neely, he said.

“If they want to just go out and have some fun playing house league, they can do that. If they want to be competitive, they can do that too.

“In the years we’ve been here, our daughters played, and now we have grandchildren coming here to play — it’s just great to see.”

Board members are committed to making sure every girl registered is able to play.

“If someone can’t afford to play, that’s not going to be a barrier to them joining the club,” said Thomas.

“And no kid is left on this field by themselves until the last one is picked up,” said Nelson. “When they come out here at night — they’re all our daughters.”

Members of the Sarnia Girls’ Soccer Club Board of Directors stand outside Veterans Memorial Fields at Lottie Neely Park. Pictured from left are, back row: Phil Nelson, Tory George, Heidi DePooter, Tony Cossa, Shawn Karr, Steve LeBlanc. Front row: Gord Young, Heather Cornelius, Susan Carnegie, Lori Russell, Pete Thomas, Carmella Arcuri (admin).
Tara Jeffrey