Prior to her senior season of high school soccer in 1995, Gretchen Hammel was moved to the defensive end of Grace Academy's formation.
Whatever strategy drove that coaching decision, it didn't take long for the standout player to realize she could use the position change to her benefit, routinely taking the ball from the back and dribbling downfield to score or set up teammates.
Even in those days, Hammel found a way to make the most out of a situation that wasn't always ideal for her.
In some ways, Chattanooga's women's soccer community owes a debt of gratitude to the ingenuity of a woman who could be considered one of the queens of the sport in the Scenic City. Hammel (formerly Cross) parlayed that Grace success into becoming the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's first soccer signee. She had success there, starting 73 of her 74 career games and finishing with 16 goals (still eighth all-time for UTC) and seven assists.
After some professional soccer stints, family life came calling. But once she became a mother, the urge to affect the sport emerged as she became the head coach at her alma mater, where she helped guide Grace to three district championships, two region titles and five state sectional appearances in nine seasons.
The Chattanooga Football Club began in 2009 as an amateur men's team, and after seeing the early buzz created in the city with a higher level of soccer than preps and college, Hammel wanted women to have some of the same advantages.
When she was younger, she'd have to travel out of town for training purposes. Suddenly there was a CFC Academy for women, in large part due to Hammel helping put a CFC women's team together. When that team nearly disbanded after its first season in 2014, it was Hammel along with teammate Kristina Heredia who battled to keep it going, with Hammel moving from player to general manager.
The women's team experienced success, winning a conference championship in 2018, but when the Chattanooga Red Wolves were founded later that year to begin play in 2019, Hammel answered the pro club's call to help form the Lady Red Wolves. They initially competed in the Women's Premier Soccer League, winning two league titles, before this year's move into the USL W League, where Chattanooga is currently second in the South Central Division standings with a 4-1-2 record.
And she's all in: Hammel, general manager and president of the women's team, handles a lot of the game-day operations, even sitting at midfield and keeping stats during home matches at CHI Memorial Stadium. She and her family routinely house team members from out of town during the summer to make sure they have a place to stay.
"It's nice to follow someone that was good at soccer and has been paving the way for women's sports in Chattanooga, but it's even easier to follow someone that genuinely cares about it," CFC defender Anna Lanter said recently.
Lanter then brought up a story about Hammel sending her family flowers after her grandparents died.
"She's investing into all the girls that she wants to impact," Lanter said, "and it's such a blessing."
The past few years have been a time of growth and change for the local soccer scene, with the arrival of the Red Wolves followed by the CFC men moving to the professional ranks in 2020. While CFC did not field a women's team the past three years, it returned this season and competes in the Women's Premier Soccer League's Southeast Conference.
Suddenly there are two pro women's soccer teams in the area, each now with developmental programs for younger players — including Hammel's two kids, 13-year old Dallas and 11-year Fergie.
"I just think it's fantastic that women's sports are being supported, no matter who it is," Hammel said. "There's a lot more women out there like me that love soccer and want to keep continuing to play after college and just love doing it.
"I felt like it was something important for our community. It's important for the women around me that are looking for these opportunities and love doing it. Someone told me to keep the focus on the main things because you can lose your focus on the little insignificant details. Soccer in Chattanooga for women is growing, and that's such a good thing and I'm glad to be a part of it."