PREP WEDNESDAY : Coppage, Esperanza Girls Find Their Successful Middle Ground

Times Staff Writer

Two months ago, John Coppage, Esperanza High School girls’ soccer coach, stood on the sidelines of Valencia’s soccer field scowling, wincing, huffing, yelling, pacing, stomping, and more often than not, shouting at his Aztec players.

Esperanza was leading, 3-0, but the coach was hardly satisfied.

“Oh, that’s great presence out there girls!” Coppage said sarcastically. “Just let the ball go by. Forget everything we practiced all week.”

A whistle blows, play stops, and the verbal battle between coach and players begins.


Player: “Well what do you want us to do?”

Coppage: “Do it the way I told you!”

Players: “We are !”

Coppage: “No you’re not!”

Players: “We are!

Coppage: “No you’re not!”

The whistle blows, play begins, and Coppage’s scowling and shouting continues.

Eight weeks and several confrontations later, Coppage and his players have found something of a peaceful middle ground. And with it, success. Esperanza (17-1-2 overall, 6-0-1 in Empire League play) is ranked third in the Southern Section 3-A.


That reality is quite different from the the scenario predicted by several coaches in the early parts of the season.

Coppage, who was 109-6-10 in four years as the Esperanza boys’ coach, left the boys’ program last May when the girls’ position became available.

At the same time, Coppage’s son, Sean, graduated after playing soccer at Esperanza for four years. Simultaneously, Coppage’s daughter, Chrissy, joined the Esperanza girls’ team.

Though the switch from boys’ to girls’ teams was, in part, family-motivated, Coppage says the main reason for the change was the need for a new challenge.


“I was becoming stagnant with the boys’ program,” said Coppage, who had led Esperanza to four Empire League titles in four years and a Southern Section 3-A title in 1986. “Basically, it wasn’t fun anymore for me. . . . Overall, it was just a more appealing challenge.”

But several area coaches wondered whether Coppage was too brash, too aggressive to be able to coach girls successfully. And girls, they said, might be a bit too undisciplined for his disciplinarian demeanor.

“There’s no question in my mind John’s going to have to make some adjustments to be successful,” said one of those coaches, Kenn Gordon, a longtime friend and girls’ coach at Sunny Hills.

“This is not a matter of being sexist, but (girls) look different, think different and act different. You have to handle them differently in similar situations.”


Many of the Aztec players were apprehensive about the new coach’s arrival. Most had seen Coppage coaching the boys. A few admitted thoughts of quitting.

‘He was scary at first,” goalie Heidi Miedecke said. “He was always yelling. Everything was like a test. We didn’t know if we were doing that stuff (practice plays) right or wrong.”

Coppage admitted the change from coaching boys to girls was as tumultuous for him--if not more so.

“The girls are a riot,” he said with no fun intended. “They have boyfriend problems. They get moody. They argue with whatever you tell them to do. If I told a boy to go run through a wall, he’d say, sure, which one? If I told a girl that, she’d debate it for a while and think it over.


“Girls are incredibly social, too. A girl’s likely to stop in the middle of a CIF (Southern Section) game and wave to Uncle Harry.”

That Coppage even mentions a Southern Section game suggests that there’s been a turnaround in the girls’ program. Last season, the Aztecs finished 12-5-6, third in the league, and were eliminated in the first round of the 3-A playoffs by La Quinta. This season, some say, they have every reason to win it.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they were the only ones left at the end (the Southern Section final),” said Canyon Coach John Williams, whose team lost to Esperanza, 1-0, last month.

“The team has great speed. They’ve got a sweeper (Colleen Gamblin) who’s got a rocket of a foot. They have set plays and execute them very well, (which) takes a lot of cooperation.


“They know exactly what to do, where to go, and when to do it every minute. They’re very well coached.”

Gordon said: “He’s had good quality players, sure, but it’s a matter of molding them to play together--not against each other. He had to rechannel his thinking and re-adjust theirs.”

Which brings us to the happy medium the Aztecs are now enjoying.

Coppage, who welcomed the team at season’s beginning with a 14-page manual on the rules of team behavior-- Lesson One: Be good or be gone!, now carries a bunch of ponytail holders in his pocket at game time for the girls.


He also admits to bringing the girls doughnuts for Saturday morning practices, buying them flowers and sending each one a rose and a Christmas card during the holidays.

The girls, who said they once “feared for their freedom to be wild and crazy,” now stand and listen attentively to Coppage’s instructions, without--well, almost without--debate.

All agree that though they might have been intimidated by their coach at first, they’ve grown to respect and like him. Said a mother of one of the players: “Like him? They adore him.”

And Coppage has a far different outlook too.


“On one hand, I’m glad we’ve eliminated some of that (silliness),” Coppage said. “But also, the girls are much more fun. They don’t take themselves as seriously as the boys. And I find myself laughing a lot more than I used to.”