WALLINGFORD — Becky Ortega didn't know a whole lot about soccer when she was asked to referee a kids' game at a park where she worked. She was just out of college, in her early 20s.
"These little kids, they're like 6 and they're fighting for the ball and the ball goes out of bounds," recalled Ortega, now 56 and a member of the Connecticut Classics over-55 women's soccer team. "All I could remember from my quick instructions — they all come and look at you with their hands raised, 'What, what?' — and I said, 'Oh, it's a hand ball.'
"They said, 'A hand ball?' I said, 'Yeah, you know, you pick it up [she pantomimed throwing the ball in], and they said, 'Oh, you mean a throw-in.' I said, 'That's it.'"
Ortega, of Guilford, knows a bit more about the game now. She has played for over 30 years.
"I met my husband, who was a soccer coach and referee, and I just got the bug," she said. "I used to love softball. But softball, you go out, stand in the field and you get up three times. The game would last for two hours. This, you're constantly moving."
"This" was Classics practice on a Friday night at Choate. The team of over-55 women was getting ready to compete in the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) Veterans Cup, which will take place in Virginia Beach July 9-13. They've been going to the tournament, which draws over 100 teams from around the country in different age-group divisions, for the past five years.
The women come from all walks of life. Many are pre-Title IX or just on the cusp. Only a few played soccer in college. Soccer wasn't offered much then in colleges or even in high schools in the early days of Title IX.
"I started playing 18 years ago," said Dr. Jill Lacy of New Haven, one of the founders of the team. "My kids were playing, and I got tired of standing on the sidelines watching them. I wanted to have some fun too. I'm pre-Title IX, so there weren't a lot of opportunities for us."
Ortega's kids played too.
"The funniest thing about it is, to this day, when I tell people I have to go to soccer, they say, 'Oh, your kids play?' I go, 'No, I play.' And they look at me like, 'Whoa,'" she said. "When my kids' friends found out, they said, 'Wow, your mom plays soccer?' I'm a cool mom. My kids are grown now. They used to come to my games."
Liza Catino of Guilford is the goalkeeper. She had injured her ankle and only practiced a little last week because she wanted to be ready for the tournament.
"My physical therapist said I'll be able to play July 9," said Catino, who has played for 38 years after playing field hockey and lacrosse in college. "[Not playing] is killing me. But I am one injury away from never playing again.
"Well, I'm 60, you know? How much longer can I do this? But I love it."
They play in the West Hartford women's league in the spring and the fall. They practice twice a week starting in April. They have a few coaches among them, as well as an official coach, Neville Wardle, whose partner is a team member and who volunteers once a week to run practice.
"Most women are eager to learn and want to improve — they are a lot more coachable than men," said Wardle, who grew up playing soccer in England, in an email. "I think there is a much greater team ethic among women. They all want each other to do well. At the Sunday morning pub league level, you don't really find that as much with men. Ten minutes into the game, they're all screaming at each other for every little mistake, whereas women are much more mutually supportive at that level of play.
"The level of commitment on this Veterans Cup team is really good, and they learn well. The reward from a coaching perspective is to show them techniques or tactical ideas and then see it play out in a game, and this group of women takes those ideas across that white line onto the pitch and makes it happen."
At this practice, they were learning how to defend a free kick, which resulted in much comedy when one of the defenders in the line ducked when the ball was kicked toward the goal and everybody gave her a hard time.
Last year, they went to San Diego for the Veterans Cup.
"We rented a house in San Diego and we had the best time," Catino said. "We were going to tell our husbands the tournament was back in San Diego this year. Even though it's not."
"It's funny, we know how we did in the tournament, but we don't remember so much what happens on the field when we leave," Ortega said. "We just remember how much fun it was being together and doing other things."
But this team is very competitive too.
Marlene Baldizon of Nicaragua, who has lived in New Haven the past 30 years, is a team member. She learned to play soccer when she went to Purdue University because she was too short to play volleyball.
"I joined this team three years ago, and they're serious business," Baldizon said. "What is most impressive is that in the last decade this team has blossomed and women are playing past their 60s. It's phenomenal."
Melody Bowman of Derby, who was nursing a pulled quad, started playing because her kids played.
"We're all very competitive people, and you have to have an outlet for that," said Bowman, who is 58. "My grandmother, when she was a grandmother in her 50s, she looked like a grandmother. There's no need to look like a grandmother if you don't want to."
The Connecticut Classics team will participate in the Kick for a Cause women's soccer tournament July 26-27 in Wallingford, which raises money for Chrysalis, a local shelter for abused women. For more information, go to http://www.kfac.org.