Shortly after a recent intrasquad scrimmage for the Chattanooga Lady Red Wolves, first-year head coach Luke Winter looked around as little girls ran around the field at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Sports Complex. The young fans, some having traveled from Atlanta to see the match, were busy attempting to secure as many autographs of players and coaches as possible.
When he was hired as the newest leader for the Lady Red Wolves this past December, Winter's place in the local soccer community was already secure: He remains one of the most iconic figures — if not the most iconic — in Chattanooga Football Club history. Winter played for Chattanooga FC, which was founded in 2009, during its improbable rise to national prominence as an amateur club from 2014-16, a stretch filled with runs to national finals in front of outstanding crowds that haven't been seen in the city since.
There were good seasons before and there have been some good ones after for CFC, which made the jump to the professional ranks by joining the National Independent Soccer Association in 2020, but that three-year stretch sticks out, highlighted by the 2015 National Premier Soccer League final played in front of 18,227 fans at Finley Stadium.
Now Winter's role has changed. So has his vision.
"I've experienced some good time playing, and towards the end of that, there was less and less involvement on the field," Winter said. "It's nice to make that transition into coaching, being on this side of it and making decisions and helping Chattanooga soccer grow and helping the women's game.
"Chattanooga is a fantastic city that supports its teams, so I'm excited to be in charge of the women's team and really helping it grow."
Winter's history with and enthusiasm for local soccer is one reason why Lady Red Wolves general manager Gretchen Hammel — who played for and was later GM of the CFC women's team, which competed from 2014 to 2018 and is set to return in 2022 — brought him in this past offseason.
The Lady Red Wolves went 10-2-1 overall and 8-1-1 in the Women's Premier Soccer League's Southeast Conference during their inaugural 2019 season, winning their conference and reaching the South Region semifinals. The pandemic led to their 2020 season being canceled, so unlike the Red Wolves men's team, they didn't have the opportunity to play at CHI Memorial Stadium when the East Ridge venue opened last year.
They're set to finally have that chance — and will do so at a stadium that has made significant gains since opening — at 7 p.m. on Sunday, June 6, when they host North Alabama SC, the same team they beat 3-0 on the road to open this season. The Lady Red Wolves' match on Friday against Southern Soccer Academy in the Atlanta area was postponed, but they'll have another opportunity to improve to 2-0 with this Friday's game at Alabama FC in Birmingham.
Interest in women's soccer in the United States has been on the rise since the 1999 World Cup. Chattanooga has seen the popularity up close, as in 2016 more than 20,000 filled Finley Stadium for the women's national team's friendly against Costa Rica. But there's always room for growth and improvement, which is why Hammel — the mother of two daughters — was so happy to hear about Winter's vision.
"I'm so excited that other people, whether male or female all over the city, are not only getting behind the Lady Red Wolves, but getting behind women's soccer and what we represent," Hammel said. "Women's soccer is such an enjoyable sport to watch; the people that play soccer are so passionate and it's the world's game, and although the women's game is different from the men, we play it just as well, so the fact that there are organizations that men and women want to get behind, it's just a great feeling.
"It's about developing role models for kids. It's about creating opportunities for the women that come through here, not just playing soccer but creating jobs for them."
The Lady Red Wolves are evidence of that. Elisha Fry, who also played for CFC's women, is Winter's assistant coach. Nights like the one for that scrimmage, which was attended by Red Wolves owner Bob Martino, will only further to push for more equality not only on the pitch, but also in the front office and on the coaching staff.
And as the Red Wolves continue to grow their brand, the Lady Red Wolves will be right there with them.
"What Bob Martino is doing and bringing to Chattanooga in soccer and outside of that, the things he's going to bring to this region is something we all should be very thankful for," Winter said. "We're looking forward to playing in that stadium, which is a big-time stadium. It's going to be very special; it has a presence about it."