“The Wolves” is a Celebration of High School Girls

by on 16 May 2018

In her 90-minute play about a U17 girls’ soccer team, Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves” tells the story of nine players. Through their pre and post-match conversations, we learn about their lives, their experiences, and are taken on a heartwarming journey into the world of a teenage soccer player.

The players, identified only by their numbers (46, 2, 11, 7, 13, 00, 8, 14, and 25), discuss everything from the upcoming games, themselves, each other, school, to political happenings of Cambodia. Revelations are made, both willingly and without consent. Friendships are made and broken and explored. The multi-racial cast and director Sarah Rasmussen did a stellar job bringing DeLappe’s 2016 script to life, for a recent, critically lauded run at the Jungle Theater in LynLake.

From a technical standpoint, the play is relatively simple. There is just one set (“an endless green field of artificial turf”) and only ten actors — the nine players and a “soccer mom” later in the play. The lighting is also simple (and beautiful in its simplicity); a row of flood lights behind the actors. The play opens on the team stretching and discussing happenings at school and their thoughts on the subject matter (the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia). These are not just soccer players; they have a rich life beyond the field as high school students.

Though soccer is the sport these women play, the play is written and performed so as to be universal. As Becca Hart, who played no. 7, said in a Q&A after the performance: “I remember no. 7s from high school, though I was much more of a no. 2.” Meredith Casey, who played no. 2, said just the opposite: she was a no. 7 who sported white eye shadow in high school. Several of the actors had played soccer growing up.

In short, the play is a celebration of high school girls and their lives and stories. But there’s a broader reach in the play’s themes. Megan Burns, who played no. 46, said after the performance that the experiences represented by the play are not gender specific. Indeed, she said “We’ve had a lot of young boys and young boy athletes come, and they really identify with it…. Young men can identify with female stories; dynamics on women’s teams are very similar to those on men’s teams.”

It’s easy to impose the personalities and characteristics of the women in the play onto people you’ve known in years past. The sense of team is palpable, even despite the various personalities and idiosyncrasies of the characters: the old friends (no. 7 and no. 13), the outsider (no. 46), the captain doing her best (no. 25). 

Inevitably, the topic of conversation turns to the teams’ various coaches. The team has had a variety of coaches, ranging from parents to professionals (paid by the players’ parents) and the gap in quality is equally as wide. Unfortunately, this too rang true for the actors. Michelle De Joya (no. 11) said her concern was not that the quality of coaching her teams had received was poor (“half the time they were your parents, so you’re not going to say they’re bad”) but rather that “the assumption was that all coaches would be male. If you were a female coach,” said De Joya, “you had to mark down that you were a woman or you wouldn’t be recognized.”

Jen Larrick, former Gopher player and current assistant coach for Augsburg’s women’s soccer team, served as the ‘soccer consultant’ for the play. She was tasked with making the stretches the players did realistic (Casey, a dancer, had to learn to be less flexible). She is also an advocate for women’s place in soccer. Ms. Larrick had been coaching at the “Just for Girls” tournament and noted that you could count the number of female coaches on one hand. 

Larrick pointed out that when the media focuses on female athletes, it often does so in a highly sexualized way. This play focuses on the players as humans, not just as women. She says “high school girls talk about more than boys; they talk about their homework, they talk about how they want to perform well on the field, they talk about their friendships and what they’re doing over the weekend. They are complex people, and that is rarely represented.”

And truly, the characters and friendships in “The Wolves” are complex. How a bad result affects the team dynamics, or an injury to the star striker. What happens when the newcomer begins to usurp one of the longtime group member’s place in the team? I won’t give away the plot twists and turns (and there are some turns), but it’s safe to say that the team has its share of ups and downs. 

Larrick spoke of the need for male allies in the attempt to grow the number of female coaches in the game. “Collegiate Athletic Directors, when they go to hire, send messages to their friends which tends to be a boys’ club, so fewer female coaches get the message…. there are internal barriers as well; a woman who doesn’t meet the full qualifications is less likely to apply than a male who doesn’t meet those qualifications.”

Regarding what male allies can do: “[men in power] need to hire female coaches, they need to study and understand the benefit of hiring female coaches.” Larrick knew of only one club in Minnesota that had all female coaches coaching their female players. This reality was represented in the play; not one of the coaches named by the players is female. 

While the show directly addresses many topics, one topic only grazed by the dialogue is that of the high monetary cost of soccer. To that point, Larrick founded a nonprofit with the goal of increasing the chance to play soccer for girls who are immigrants, refugees, or come from families with low income. Like a Girl also runs  college showcase over the Summer (July 21-22 this summer) to give these girls a pathway to college through soccer. Kara Kawakami, a member of the Board of Directors for Like a Girl, is also the Events and Hospitality manager for Minnesota United FC. The club donated tickets last year to participants in the college showcase in late July.

Ultimately, The Wolves tells the story that focuses on who high school girls are and how the dynamics of sports teams function. It centers on the girls as people and players, and is incredibly entertaining to boot. If you have a chance, I highly recommend you see it if possible — Samuel French (the publisher)’s website has a list of upcoming stagings.

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