Soccer 1987: They barely remember the accomplishments. They’ll never forget the friendships

Recent hall of fame inductees reflect on a championship season and a push to get respect for women’s sports

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The Nestor Elementary teacher was rolling through her Facebook feed, putting posts up and out of mind when she paused. There was a note about Brittany Timko Baxter, a soccer player she’d competed against. Baxter, it seemed, was being inducted into the Coquitlam Sports Hall of Fame.

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It was nice to see Baxter getting that recognition. But there was something else in the post, something about a team from 1987 also being inducted.

A championship soccer team from 1987? But . . .  

“Wasn’t that me?” Sheryl Torres remembers thinking. “I’m pretty sure that was me.”

Talking to teammates Sue Isomura and Bette Cavanagh, the memories of that season are as warm and hazy as a summer afternoon.

They were the first B.C. team to win the Canadian women’s championship, capturing the gold with a victory in Winnipeg.

But, with a few exceptions, the scores and games are forgotten. 

Torres had a photo album crammed with pictures and recollections of her soccer career. 

“It’s all gone,” she says.

But there are things they do remember: the self-sacrificing goalie. The teenager who shoved her hotel bed against a wall to reduce her chances of rolling onto the floor in the middle of night. The player who got a speeding ticket on her way to a provincial championship and, deciding it was a sign of good fortune, tried to get another one before the next game. They remember that and they remember each other.

Leaving the beehive; learning the beautiful game

“We could beat you with our hands tied behind our backs!”

“You guys can’t be that good!”

Sue Isomura still recalls the shouts and jeers. 

After years working with street youth and running group homes, Isomura works with children with special needs these days. But she remembers the time when women’s sport was summarily dismissed.

It wasn’t just attitudes, either, it was institutional, Torres notes, recalling how the unequal treatment received by women’s and men’s soccer teams at the University of Victoria. 

“We got nothing and they got money,” she recalls, remembering the women’s team having to shell out cash for uniforms.

It’s much better now, Torres says.

“But back in the ‘80s, it wasn’t.”

The 1987 squad was recently inducted into the Coquitlam Sports Hall of Fame. photo supplied

The ‘80s

It’s hard not to turn a bygone era into a caricature, good or bad.

But amid acid wash jeans, mixtapes, the launch of TSN and the decline of the one dollar bill, a soccer scene was forming in Burnaby and Coquitlam.

For Torres, it was the chance her mother didn’t have. An accomplished sprinter, Torres’ mother was one of many athletes with more talent than ways to use it.

“She put me in soccer thinking it would be perfect for me because I was fast and I liked to run, like her,” Torres says.

Most girls of her generation, even talented athletes, tended to step back from sports in their teens, Torres recalls.

“You didn’t want to get your makeup dirty, you didn’t want to be like a tomboy.” 

But as a member of the Willingdon Dirty Dozen, Torres stuck with soccer.

She played all over the Tri-Cities. Thinking back to those days, she remembers a ubiquitous figure on the sidelines. A distinct figure who always wore a cap. 

A coach named Cam

For Isomura, coach Cam Barnetson was a breath of fresh air.

“There were very few strong male soccer role models that truly believed in female soccer,” she says. “He was one of them.”

Other coaches were content to have women’s teams play a kick-and-run style that Barnetson dubbed: “beehive soccer,” recalls Bette Cavanagh.

Barnetson showed them the passing game, Isomura says.

It was a matter of trickle-down trust. The coach trusted the players with a strategy that would succeed or fail based on how much the players trusted in each other.

A BCIT instructor in his other life, Barnetson would sit his players in front of the chalkboard and talk about the nuances of strategy and the physics of the game.

“That belief in us brought us together,” Isomura says. “He believed so strongly in us that we couldn’t help but believe in ourselves.”

The team was a hodgepodge of teenagers and women in their late 20s representing clubs from Coquitlam and Burnaby.

Cavanagh laughs at being one of the squad’s veterans.

“I was considered an older player,” she laughs.

“Well, you were,” Isomura chimes.

But it wasn’t all grace and strategy, Cavanagh recalls.

“We were fearless, too,” she says. “He taught us to go in for the tackle, never hold back cause you’ll get hurt.”

The laughs at the memory. “Injured now as adults,” she adds.

A teenager back then, Isomura recalls leaving the protected world of youth soccer for the: “no-holds-barred, no protection, go for it soccer.”  

“Tough, tough women,” she says. “Scary.”

But, at least on their team, that aggression was balanced with supportiveness, even kindness.

Isomura remembers they had one more player than they were allowed. Denise Duquette “took a step back.”

She knew she wouldn’t be able to step over the sidelines onto the pitch but Duquette stayed with the squad, cheering on her teammates for every game.

Cavanagh remembers the final game.

She was injured but willing to play. The coach, however, wasn’t willing to play her.

“You’re going to break your leg,” Cavanagh recalls him saying.

So she sat and cheered and, with her leg hurt but unbroken, watched the team capture the gold.

She laughs when she talks about the injury now.

“My doctor, when I got injured, [wrote]: ‘Elite soccer player,’” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘Ooh, that sounds good.’”

Torres remembers jumping on a plane home after the game.

“I don’t even think we had a victory dinner,” she says.

The impact

“For me, being a team player is one of my proudest attributes, Cavanagh says.

Isomura agrees.

“It’s actually a requirement for my kids,” Isomura says. “The poor kids.” 

Isomura is a coach herself these days, passing along Barnetson’s passing style of play.

“It’s amazing how a coach like that sticks with you,” she says. “Thirty-four years later, I’m still hollering those things at the kids I coach.”

“You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

“Possession, possession!”

Cavanagh nods in recognition. “One of the other things Mr. B used to say was: ‘Nobody remembers second place!’” Cavanagh says with a laugh. “Do you remember that.”

Isomura hesitates for a split second as the memory of a second-place finish comes back into focus.

“Yep,”  she says. “I do actually, now that you said it. ‘Cause all of us choose to forget all about 1988.”

In subsequent years players from the area would go on to join Canada’s national team, matching up against the best international competition.

“We were born too early,” Cavanagh muses.

“This is the team that helped set a standard,” Isomura says.

The 1987 team helped advance women’s soccer, they agree. 

“It’s nice that those barriers have been broken,” Cavanagh says. “I believe we were part of that force that helped . . . I really think we made a difference.”

Then, as if feeling self-conscious at being interviewed, Cavanagh laughs.

“I’m not very good at this,” she says of being interviewed. “I’d rather play soccer.”

“In September you can come out and play with us, Bette,” Isomura invites. “We’ll let you score a goal.”

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