After pausing for two years of “stoppage time” during the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, it’s been “play on” for participants in Western Carolina University’s “Old-Timers Soccer Reunion.”
The reunion was launched in 1974 as a warmup game for the now-defunct men’s soccer team, pitting former student-athletes against then-current players. It has become an event involving alumni from men’s and women’s squads alike – and a major fundraiser for the women’s program, helping procure nearly $300,000 in scholarship support to date.
For 2023, nearly 70 former players gathered in April to lace up their cleats for a friendly competition with the women’s squad and to relive a little of their glory days, said Brad Bradshaw ’76, a finance major who played on the men’s team and is among the reunion’s organizers.
“Most of the men’s alumni are now in their 60s, so just being able to run up and down the field is a win,” Bradshaw said. “While we like to think we ‘still have it,’ there are very few similarities between us and the current student-athletes in terms of skills and capabilities. We have very competitive games and while our life stages don’t allow for full-time training, the desire is still there.”
In the mid-1970s, Bradshaw was among the men’s players competing against soccer alumni in the inaugural reunion match. The event continued as a social gathering including the game and a cookout even after 1984, when the team was discontinued, an unintended consequence of Title IX regulations requiring institutions receiving public funding to provide equal opportunities for male and female student-athletes.
Former men’s players turned their focus to fundraising to try to generate enough money to reinstate the team. “After several meetings with WCU Athletics staff and being told ‘you would have to fund two women’s sports to allow us to bring back one men’s sport,’ the discussions kind of went into limbo,” said Bradshaw, a retired marketing executive. “But the fund still existed.”
Shortly after the women’s team began in 1999, alumni from the men’s squad decided to throw their support behind the nascent program. “As you can imagine, there was some controversy about this, but we collectively decided we needed to get over ourselves and move forward to support the sport as it existed at WCU,” Bradshaw said. “That does not mean we wouldn’t love to see it come back. We were just being realistic.”
For head coach Chad Miller, it’s quite special that alumni who could have been resentful about their sport being terminated instead banded together to do something beneficial for their alma mater. “The Old-Timers group continues to make such an amazing impact on our program – not only financially, but with their love, mentoring and support. They have shown our group the power of relationships and staying connected. The Old-Timers have truly left a legacy for soccer at WCU that will continue for generations to come,” Miller said.
Sarah Rice Demarest ’03, a communications major and women’s soccer team member who received scholarships to support her educational and athletic pursuits, is among the alumnae participating in the reunion and helping raise money for scholarships.
“All throughout college, we knew the men were always incredibly supportive of us,” said Demarest, development manager at Democracy Works. “Our coach, Debbie Hensley, taught us the importance of engaging with and thanking our men alumni. We were very aware they helped support us financially from the very beginning. It’s been so special to be able to pay that forward with the current team through our soon-to-be-endowed KKSB scholarship.”
Launched in 2017 by a group of soccer alumnae, the KKSB Legacy Scholarship Fund is one of five current scholarships designed to provide financial support to WCU soccer players. Two others – the Charles W. Schrader Soccer Scholarship and Malcolm Loughlin Soccer Scholarship – were founded by alumni from the men’s program in honor of two former coaches, both of whom lost their lives to cancer.
In addition, donors with no direct affiliation with the soccer program have gotten onboard. Blaise Stevens ’05 and Brittne Stevens established an endowed scholarship in honor of former player Casey Davis Roche ’06 in 2014, while Debbie and Dale Sims ’78 created an endowed scholarship for women’s soccer in 2018.
With the four endowed funds generating nearly $12,000 in scholarships in 2023-24, reunion participants have turned attention to helping the KKSB Legacy Scholarship across the threshold of $25,000 to begin providing aid to student-athletes. “That is so important,” Demarest said. “We have done so great with getting it to where it is, but none of that actually matters until we get it endowed.”
Maggie Lloyd ’22, a first-year graduate student in health sciences who earned her bachelor’s degree in integrated health sciences, received the Blaise and Brittne Stevens Women’s Soccer Scholarship in Honor of Casey A. Davis. “Being able to have financial assistance while getting my undergraduate degree and first master’s degree is very beneficial in allowing me to have minimal debt before going into a physician’s assistant program,” said Lloyd, a forward. “I love playing soccer and I am thankful for the opportunity to get to be part of such a wonderful program.”
Midfielder Rea Syska, a senior recreational therapy major, received the Debbie and Dale Sims Women’s Soccer Endowed Scholarship. “I know that I’m not only playing for myself or the team, but that I have other influences who may be watching and keeping up with women’s soccer, as well. It makes me work harder knowing somebody is willingly supporting me in what I do,” Syska said. “I think very highly of those soccer Old-Timers. Playing with them and seeing the joy on their faces when playing the beautiful game again is so enlightening and fun to be around.”