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Still alive, kicking after two decades

On this very day nearly 20 years ago, Vicky King coached her first high school soccer game, and Melissa Wells played hers.

They were pioneers, though they had no idea at the time. King just wanted to coach, Wells just wanted to play, both eager to see their sport thrive when others said it wouldn't.

That night, before hundreds of curious fans, both played key roles in the birth of girls high school soccer in Pasco County.

Tonight at Land O'Lakes, King and Wells (who is now Melissa Welch) will mark the anniversary of the first games in county history with one of their own. King, the longtime coach of the Gators, is going up against Welch, the first-year coach at Ridgewood, her alma mater.

You've come a long way, ladies.

"Has it really been 20 years?'' asked Welch, who was named the county's Player of the Year that first season. "Wow. It was a big game. I know it was a big deal. I know we won. And I know it was a long time coming for girls soccer.''

Until that game in 1987, high school soccer was limited in the county to boys. While the FHSAA had sanctioned girls soccer beginning in 1982, with 95 schools playing, Pasco's girls had to settle for club programs or boys junior varsity teams.

But the rise of Welch and Hudson's Honey Marsh, both of whom had fathers who were strong proponents of the sport, helped push the issue of high school teams to the forefront.

Both players had to compete on boys middle school teams, and also played on the highly acclaimed Tampa Blackwatch club team.

As they prepared to enter high school, their parents and others in the community began to push for the addition of girls soccer.

"I asked Tom Weightman, the superintendent of schools at the time, why there was no girls soccer and he said he didn't think the demand was there for it,'' said Mike Wells, Melissa's father and a county commissioner at the time. "I convinced him if he would survey the students he'd see there was.''

Weightman agreed to survey students during the 1986-87 school year. The results were conclusive.

"He said, 'Surprisingly, the demand is there,' '' said Wells, who is now Pasco's property appraiser.

The first season was played among six teams: Ridgewood, Hudson, Gulf, Land O'Lakes, Pasco and Zephyrhills. Each team was limited to a 10-game schedule.

King, the only coach remaining from the first season, said she remembers being told just 30 days before the start of the season that girls soccer was a go.

"There was like no time,'' said King, who immediately organized fundraisers to pay for new uniforms. While the team shared balls and soccer goals with the successful Land O'Lakes boys team, everything else was makeshift.

"I remember when I asked Jerry English for our (mesh practice) jerseys, he pulled them out of a 2.5 gallon cooler and they smelled so bad,'' King said. "They were the football team. To this day, oh my God, I can't even touch these things!''

King also remembers her locker room that first season. It was her classroom, where the players had to change before and after games. King, who teaches adaptive physical education, has the same classroom today.

"Everything's different now,'' she said. "The girls today, they see all this nice stuff, and they have no idea where it came from or how we all started.''

Though it began on an experimental basis, the success of that first season's players, like Welch, Marsh and Gulf's Ann Marie Rossi, inspired a younger generation of girls eager to take advantage of the opportunity now available, ensuring the sport's place in Pasco's lineup.

Hernando County joined in a few years later, and junior varsity teams were added as well as middle school girls soccer.

Next year, Welch's daughter Amber will play at Chasco Middle School, an opportunity never available to her mom.

"It's weird, but yeah, I do feel like I've helped make an impact,'' Welch said. "It was hard to keep the sport going, but I hope the way that Honey, myself and Ann Marie played and progressed that we helped the sport stay intact."