Cy Strickler has been coaching girls’ soccer teams for more than 30 years. What can equip a man for such a venture?
“He has five daughters… should I say more?” said Hansell Roddenbery, a parent who has been coaching alongside Strickler for eight years.
Strickler used to play soccer for Westminster in the '50s. “It was the game for me,” he said. But when he started his own daughters in soccer leagues at the Atlanta Northside YMCA in the '70s, he found that boys teams took field-priority and drew most of the public interest, as well as most of the coaches. One year and then another, his daughters’ teams needed coaches, so Strickler volunteered. But he was determined to have a soccer program devoted to girls.
In 1982 Strickler created the first Tophat Soccer team as part of the YMCA. He named the team after his Navy Fighter Squadron, VF-14, known as the Fighting Fourteen Tophatters (players used to wear top hats to competitions). Years later, a friend gave the coach permission to use 12 acres of undeveloped family property, and “one field at a time” the club expanded. He said he used to think, “100 girls… boy, that’d be something.” Now the club serves 1,300 children, ages pre-K through high school.
“It turned out to be something the kids really do like,” the founder said. “There was no slowing it down.” Strickler said he established Tophat to provide a place for girls to excel. He said a committed soccer club makes good citizens, and gives girls self-confidence.
Roddenbery said, “I like the vision Cy created years ago.”
One “big plus” about the program, according to Strickler, is the community it forms among students from various Atlanta schools as they play and practice together, becoming friends. Tophatters are students from Westminster, Sarah Smith Elementary, Lovett and many more.
According to Strickler, practice is a time to train in a few main areas: becoming comfortable touching the ball, playing under pressure, and being in close contact with surrounding players, like in a real game. He said soccer is a sport that teaches itself — as you play it, you learn it. He said many excellent soccer players learned the sport by playing in the streets, without ever having a coach.
Roddenbery said his goal in coaching is to make soccer fun and exciting to these girls, and something they want to continue to playing. “Let them naturally become better,” he said.
The club is organized into leagues based on their high school graduation year, from Tophatters '11 (seniors) to Tophatters '22 (preschoolers). Currently, there is a waiting list for players to join the club starting in preschool, though the founder wasn’t expecting his program to be so large. Strickler said he can’t allow more players simply because the field size is limited, and also so that the leadership and organization will remain under control.
The youngest teams are known as the Little Hatters. Strickler called them the “little bitties.” The Little Hatters play 3 vs. 3 player games, so each child has more time with the ball.
Millar Freeman was on the original Tophat Under-12 team. As a mother she returned to be a volunteer coach, and she now has two daughters in the club as Little Hatters. She said for the younger players, soccer is fun and improves fitness. The hardest part, she said, is getting the Little Hatters to focus.
Older-age leagues are Club, (non-competitive), Academy (intensive training) and Athena (advanced competition). The Tophat Soccer teams have won multiple state championships, and more than 100 young women have gone on to play soccer for college teams, according to Strickler. He said if the girls continue training on a competitive track, by the time they get to high school they are “accomplished.”
“Winning came from good organization and training,” Strickler said.
One Tophat tradition is the tournament-style World Cup, a competition for the Under-12, Under-11 and Under-10 club teams, all in one day. Teams join in a parade down the field, holding banners of countries they're representing. While every other game within the Tophats is not about winning, according to Strickler, the World Cup is a time for competition. At the end of the day, one team walks away with a trophy. Roddenbery said that to the students, “what matters is the world cup.” This year’s World Cup will take place May 21.
To learn more about upcoming Tophat competitions, summer camps and clinics, visit the website: Tophat Soccer Club.