Headed into its 25th year, the 1999 Rael Vodicka Memorial Tournament, hosted by the Washington Area Girls Soccer League (WAGSL), was anything but broken. This tournament, featuring elite teams from across the nation, has always enjoyed a growth curve, as well as help pioneer top-level girls' soccer nationally. But the WAGS tournament, as it is known to everyone, was facing a potential crisis in transition.
Former tournament director Tom Nash stepped down two years ago, followed last year by Michelle Shircliff, who left to take a new position in Region I soccer administration. Shircliff is daughter of former WAGSL president Adele Dolansky, who held that post 21 years.
Second-year WAGSL president Kathie Diapoulis (replacing the long respected Dolansky) knew she was going to be leading the tournament into a new era after replacing Shircliff. She confidently put her trust in Louise Waxler, who brought with her 12 years experience as the Columbia (Maryland) tournament director and had also directed the Kicks against Breast Cancer tournament four years.
It didn't take long in the formal interview process before Waxler was shining as the top candidate. But her real worth as an administrator was tested more severely than either woman expected as torrential rain showers spurred by two hurricanes in 21 days threatened to cancel the 1999 tournament.
Waxler had wasted little time in trying to address one of the tournament's annual problems -- finding enough adequate field space, locations with field conditions to match the quality of the teams participating. She expanded participation with sites at a polo field complex and Muldoon's Farm to put the U-16 through U-19 competitions on large, manicured fields. The high-level competition in the older age groups drew the annual army of college coaches to scout and evaluate prospects. The group of coaches totaled more than 230 this year, a substantial number to heed advice from.
Wags Tournament Director
Louise Waxler with April
Heinrichs the new Head Coach of
the U.S. National Team
"My goal is to reduce the number of sites and increase the number of fields per site," Waxler said.
She also proved courageous enough to address another "hot" issue. Despite the continued growth (a record number of more than 700 teams applied this year) the college coaches indicated to her they would appreciate fewer teams in the older age groups because it was becoming logistically, too difficult to see all the girls available.
Waxler scaled down to 380 teams this year compared to 426 last year. Instead of 62 teams each in the U17 and U19 groups, 48 competed in 1999. The U16 field was reduced to 44 from 52. All age groups, except the U14's were cut back.
Mother Nature nearly cut the WAGS field to zero teams after the East Coast was lashed by a hurricane one-two punch leading into the Columbus Day tournament. The weekend before the tournament, the area sustained 13 inches of rain.
The new field areas withdrew most of their field sites to the tournament as late as Tuesday, just three days before team registration. Other areas were uncertain right into tournament time.
Waxler and WAGS was rescued by the U.S. Marines, or rather Colonel Leif Hendrickson, the base commander at the Marines' training center, Quantico. Waxler secured the field sites at Quantico from Tuesday to Wednesday via Hendrickson. Then Waxler had to cancel all the contracts to deliver accessory items such as Port-A-Potties to the Maryland sites and make new ones to deliver the items to Quantico. Other problems developed with the new field sites in Maryland still being used. Mowers could not get to the fields to mow the grass because of the water, so a landscaping firm was contracted to do it. Fewer fields were used and parents had to drop off the players further from the site. The games, in younger age groups, had to be reduced to 20-minute halves to squeeze the competition into the four available fields. More age groups had to be moved to Quantico as the tournament progressed, from some of the other regional park fields, such as Bull Run, Kinchloe and Prince William.
Every other area soccer tournament canceled, but the WAGS persevered.
Diapoulis had nothing but high praise in the way Waxler handled the extra workload and the extra stress of dispensing field changes and game lengths to not-always-so-understanding parents and coaches.
Despite the challenges, Diapoulis and Waxler could look at the 1999 WAGS tournament and see some big positives, especially on the horizon.
There is a strong recommitment to quality in the tournament, moreso than quantity.
"For me, the WAGS tournament should highlight the best that girls soccer has to offer," Waxler said.
A big part of that commitment means improvement of facilities. The inauguration of the new Maryland soccerplex next year will be a giant step forward in that direction. The complex, at Germantown, MD, near the Potomac, will initially feature 19 fields and a championship pitch. Eventually, 20-23 fields will be in place. It will help insure that only the better quality pitches will be used for the tournament to better showcase the talent on hand.
But cutting back, easy to say, is also the hardest thing to actually do.
"It's almost like starting over again," Waxler said.
Another positive was the involvement of Kappa as the official equipment supplier. Diapoulis and Waxler appreciated the philosophy behind the logo of the company, "equality in sports," featuring a male and female player, sitting back to back. Kappa is well known in Italy, but a relatively new supplier in the U.S..
A former well-liked feature of WAGS is being taken under consideration by the new regime, reinstalling the college division. Improving field conditions and a stadium field site make it more appealing again.
Waxler and Diapoulis make it clear that nothing is actually sacrosanct. To improve the quality and better serve the teams and colleges, almost any change would at least be looked at, even changing the date, though that is not on anyone's agenda.
The growth of women's soccer, given an enormous high-profile boost last summer by the 1999 women's world cup, will continue to keep the WAGS tournament a key annual soccer event and insure it is a not-to-be-missed venue for the highest-level teams.