Since moving out of town after graduating from Newtown High School in 1985, Kelley Johnson has returned for the Labor Day Parade numerous times. Each visit has been special — Johnson had marched in the parade as a clown in fifth grade, and later as a member of the school band — but this year’s will have a different sort of significant meaning for Johnson.
She’ll be back in the parade, marching alongside current and future Newtown High soccer players, who — thanks to the efforts of Johnson and her mom her mom, Ruby, a political figure in town for many years, among others, three decades ago — have the opportunity to score goals and dream of state titles.
Who knows how long it might have been if not for the determination and effort put forth by a group led by Johnson, who got started in lobbying for girls’ soccer well before high school.
In third grade, the then soccer-playing hopeful wrote letters to town officials pleading for a youth squad after her mom told her she would have to take action to get a team formed. There were no girls’ teams, and boys’ youth soccer had only been organized in town a few years earlier, in the early 1970s, Johnson said. Attempts failed and she chose to play on boys’ squads in Monroe, since girls were not permitted to play on the boys’ teams in Newtown, she said. By the late 1970s or 1980, girls started playing on boys’ teams in town and Newtown finally established a girls’ travel team when she was in middle school, a couple of years later. The squad had to venture out of town since there were so few players and only one team could be established, she recalls. Johnson played on the travel team until joining the newly established junior varsity team at the high school in the fall of 1983.
Proud to be a significant part of a group that fought to create that JV team, and the first varsity team in the fall of her senior year, Johnson is commemorating the 30th anniversary of NHS varsity girls’ soccer by bringing past and current Newtown High girls, along with future players who compete in the Newtown Soccer Club, together to march in Monday’s parade.
Johnson recalls that she, among a group of players and some parents, pushed for the team in the early 1980s, but initially heard the typical arguments such as “girls should not play contact sports,” as well as the fact that there was no money, no field, and no coach for a girls’ team, she recalls. Ultimately, in 1983, the Newtown Board of Education voted 4-2 to establish girls’ soccer as a Title IX equalizer. At the time, Newtown High had one more team for boys than for girls, Johnson added. The Newtown Soccer Club provided the town with $1,000, and players also raised money by going door to door and holding car washes, for example. The girls’ team was bused to Treadwell Park, and Coach Bob Sveda (then the athletic director at NHS) stepped forward to coach the team. Dr John Reed was the school superintendent at the time and Pat Llodra was on the Board of Education, Johnson recalls.
Sue (Knapp) Williams, one of those first-team players, is organizing the reunion along with Johnson and coming up from Florida to visit family and participate in the parade. Williams, whose father was an active parent and recreational girls’ soccer coach, played on a boys’ teams in Newtown before the girls’ travel squad was formed. She and Johnson also worked together to organize a ten-year reunion.
Williams recalls how challenging it was to get the team off the ground back in the 1980s. “We had to petition the school board and raise some money — and keep our fingers crossed,” Williams said.
“It always takes some very brave folks to put themselves out there and begin pioneering and trailblazing in shaping something that doesn’t exist,” said John Premus, president of the Newtown Soccer Club, adding that he’s thrilled to see today’s players have an opportunity to lace up their cleats.
Premus has a daughter, Sara, in the Newtown Soccer Club program, and he’s grateful for her and other up-and-coming players to have the opportunity to compete.
“To see their smiles, it’s just amazing — it’s great,” he said.
The high school’s varsity program has experienced nothing but winning ways since that inaugural season, enjoying 30 winning campaigns, nine divisional championships, and a pair of state titles along the way. In fact, the 1984 team won the program’s first Western Connecticut Conference crown.
“We had some good kids. The kids were pretty good,” Sveda recalls, adding that the soccer wasn’t nearly as popular then as it is these days.
Girls’ soccer has grown in leaps and bounds since that first team of 15 or so players was created. Now, there are about 500 recreation and travel girls booting balls on the pitch through the Newtown Soccer Club, Premus said.
“It’s just a reminder that we always need to be going forward,” Johnson said of the success girls’ soccer has experienced throughout the years.
“The process of getting it established is much more of an accomplishment than ever having played,” Johnson added.
But make no mistake about it. She enjoyed playing. So much so that, in fact, Johnson continued to play the game in college, and later in adult leagues until moving back to Newtown a year ago. She returned to take care of her 88-year-old father, Ken, shortly after her mom died in 2012. Johnson wrote a memoir as a tribute to her mother called Hatched in Newtown that includes the history of the girls’ soccer program in Newtown.
Johnson says there are 250 or so alumni from the high school program. She’s been compiling a list of all coaches and players involved in the school program, as well as statistics, since the first team was formed.
“I can’t wait,” Williams said of getting to see her former teammates for the parade. “We were a really tight group.”
All alumni, current, and future players, coaches, friends, family, and supporters are welcome to join to march at the parade lineup at the assigned Newtown Soccer Club location.