There is this widely accepted notion that in order to play most organized games, including soccer, at the higher levels, one must be introduced to them at the earliest age possible. The ball should be in the cradle, so to speak. Lose that early time at the start, it is thought, and one is a step behind from the beginning and into the formative years. How can that player “succeed”? What about the scholarship?
Susan Ellis is one individual that has turned that notion on its head. She grew up in Chapel Hill, which in the 1970’s was a very progressive area related to opportunities for young women in athletics. Swimming, track, basketball and tennis were all there for her during her Chapel Hill High School days, and it was not until her senior year that she was introduced to soccer. Not knowing at the time, obviously, where it would take her, she initially found it “…a good fit. It came very natural.”
Her plans had been to go to Springfield College in Massachusetts, a mecca for those seeking to coach and teach physical education in schools. This career choice had been a lifelong dream. But in her senior year she competed in several tournaments on a team guided by Geoff Griffin, Bill Palladino and Anson Dorrance. As she tells it: “I certainly wasn’t the best out there…but I was fast and I was tough, qualities they admired, so they asked me if I wanted to come to Carolina.”
It was a difficult choice, but UNC won out and Ellis joined the Tar Heel soccer team in 1980, a year after their initial season. An athletic scholarship would come in her sophomore year and she would go on to lead UNC to four national championships (1 AIAW, 3 NCAA), captaining as a senior and becoming a driving force on those legendary early teams that forged the program’s reputation. In addition, she would be named to the USA National Women’s Team, at that time a ceremonial position. But just as importantly, she got her coveted college degree in the winter of 1984 and set out for her life’s work.
This would take Susan to the Dallas area, where for 16 years she taught elementary school PE and coached at all-girls Ursuline Catholic High School. There her girls won an amazing fourteen state titles in soccer, along with championships in tennis. She even dabbled in coaching swimming. And there she might have stayed had it not been for the entreaties of coach Marcia McDermott, a former teammate, who twice asked Ellis to help through assistant’s positions, first at Arkansas and then at Northwestern. When the third call came, and it involved the state of North Carolina, it was impossible to say no.
Here she would be a coach in the initial women’s professional league, the WSA, with the Carolina Courage. In their second year the team won the league title, but by 2003 the WSA had folded. She would not be out of work long, however, as she soon would land at Durham Academy, where she has established herself quite well. Ellis is a middle school PE and Health teacher and coaches girls tennis and soccer at the high school. She has won over 80% of her soccer games, along with numerous conference titles, and can point to playing on five championship teams in the over-30 National Veterans Cup and a runner-up team recently in the over-55 division as proof of her love for the game.
When Ellis was in the third grade, she came under the influence of a Mrs. Settle Womble, a teacher whose guidance and belief in the young girl helped solidify a future life and career choice. That power of the role model is now evident in what Susan has done in school and on field. She has inherited the mantle and given support to the idea that the longer one coaches, the more one understands what they are in it for. Soccer found her as she found her niche. And now Susan Ellis finds herself in the North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame, a most worthy inductee.