Parents seek equal treatment for Ooltewah girls soccer team

The Ooltewah High School football team practices on the football stadium field as soccer nets are set to the side.

It's sad that it's gotten to this point. We want the soccer parents to know we are in their corner more than anybody.

photo Coach Mac Bryan's Ooltewah Owls line up on the practice field.

The girls soccer team at Ooltewah High School has been pushed aside for more than a decade to accommodate football, and parents say they're tired of their daughters' Title IX rights being violated.

"We are only asking for equal opportunity for the Lady Owls," Brian Voelp, a parent of a girl on the team, told the Hamilton County Board of Education last week.

For about 15 years, the girls team hasn't been able to practice on the school's campus because the stadium field is reserved for game days and the football teams use the practice field.

During the last 10 years, the girls have been using a field at a nearby church for practice, according to soccer boosters. And they've also held several home games at Redoubt Soccer Association, seven miles away, instead of at the school's stadium because of scheduling conflicts with football.

Parents of Lady Owls soccer team players said even middle school and pee-wee football took precedent at times over the girls, and before the team was able to practice at the church's field they were driving to Redoubt for practice.

Last week, a couple dozen soccer boosters and players wearing shirts representing the team stood behind Voelp as he spoke to the Hamilton County Board of Education. It was the second time Ooltewah girls soccer team representatives had addressed the school board members, whom they alerted to the situation in April.

Parents said they petitioned the school's former principal, Jim Jarvis, for a solution and nothing was done, and just in the past few weeks, the school has provided the girls team with a baseball outfield to use for practice this fall.

Voelp said soccer boosters are thankful the baseball coach allowed the team to use the field, but said it's not adequate for soccer practice.

Ooltewah High School's recently appointed principal, Robin Copp, and the new athletic director, Brad Jackson, agree.

Jackson said when he started at the school earlier this month he wasn't aware of how long the situation had been a problem. He said he has communicated only with the team's coach, and he's trying to schedule a meeting with the coach and the team's parents.

Jackson said he hopes any experiences parents have had with the previous administration will not stop them from communicating with him and Copp.

"It's sad that it's gotten to this point," he said. "We want the soccer parents to know we are in their corner more than anybody."

Working with the football boosters and the girl's soccer coach, Jackson said the girls will be able to play each of their home games this season at the stadium field. He added that any outside group like a middle school or pee-wee team will not use the field over the girls.

"Our end goal is to provide girls soccer with the same opportunity as the boys," he said.

Copp said she was alerted to the situation when she started in early July, and she immediately began looking to see what facilities were available for the girls to use.

Ooltewah High School is one of the largest high school athletic programs in the county, and Copp said finding practice space for freshman, junior varsity and varsity football teams, along with the marching band and girl's soccer, requires everyone to be flexible.

"Every principal wants a facility that will hold their kids with nice athletic fields, but with Ooltewah growing as fast as it is, I don't know the solution," Copp said.

She hopes the school board and the central office will be able to find an answer, but in the meantime, she's working to find creative solutions with what's available.

School board member Steve Highlander, who represents Ooltewah, said he wasn't aware of the situation until he was elected to the school board in 2014.

"I'm very concerned and I'm trying to look into whatever I can do to make the situation better for them," he said.

Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Lee McDade said he was alerted of the problem earlier this spring when the church notified Ooltewah about the field needing to be paved for additional parking.

"As soon as I was made aware of it I started working on solutions," McDade said. "We are looking for a long-term fix."

Buddy Rogers' family helped build Ooltewah's current stadium, and he played on the field himself back in the 1980s. His daughters also played soccer at the school starting in 2001, and even though they graduated years ago, he remains a fan of the program.

Rogers fondly remembers representing his school on the field in front of a cheering crowd, and said Monday that he's sad his daughters and other girls didn't always get to have the same experience as they were playing their games at a field off campus.

"The girls were just missing so much," he said. "There is nothing like playing for your school and having home-field advantage."

He said he is glad there seems to be a temporary fix for the team this fall, but said the school board and district administration need to come up with a long-term solution.

"These girls just need to be treated equally," he said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.