Barton College holds seventh annual “Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day”

Speakers at the Pup’s Steakhouse Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day hosted by Barton College on Thursday: (front row, l-r) Sydney Graybeal, Kamryn Graybeal; (back row, l-r) Phyllis Parish Howard, Caroline Searcy, Brianna Thomas, Sydney Turner
Speakers at the Pup’s Steakhouse Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day hosted by Barton College on Thursday: (front row, l-r) Sydney Graybeal, Kamryn Graybeal; (back row, l-r) Phyllis Parish Howard, Caroline Searcy, Brianna Thomas, Sydney Turner

by Benny Benton

WILSON, N.C. - From adult insights by a pair of 10-year-old twins to a candid reminder from a current student-athlete that gender inequality still exists in our society, six speakers shared a variety of observations during the seventh annual “Pup’s Steakhouse Celebration of Girls and Women in Sports Day” Thursday at Barton College.

The featured guests included Brianna Thomas, a former Barton women’s basketball player now working as an accountant for PepsiCo in Indianapolis, Ind.; Caroline Searcy, a volleyball player and freshman at Fike High School; Kamryn and Sydney Graybeal, fourth-graders at Rock Ridge Elementary School who play youth soccer; Sydney Turner, a member of both the women’s golf and women’s swimming teams at Barton; and Phyllis Parish Howard, a former Barton tennis player who is now an award-winning producer for WRAL-TV in Raleigh.

Thomas pointed out that while some of the values gained in playing sports are obvious, such as building the foundation for a healthy and active lifestyle and learning the importance of teamwork, others are less well known, and she shared two that she encountered while at Barton.

One was a sense of awareness and conscientiousness about other people, which she said she came to learn through her team’s community service activities such as Barton Day of Service, tutoring, and Make-A-Wish.

The other was learning how to persevere through adversity, which she said included understanding that she was not alone in the fight.

“The beauty of being a Lady Bulldog is that you don’t have to succumb to these tests and trials when they come,” Thomas said. “You can not only rely on the same determination and grit that led you to become a Lady Bulldog in the first place, but you can also tap into a network of Lady Bulldogs both past and present that have been through, or are going through, the same things you are. Putting on that blue and white uniform made you an addition to an ever-growing network of Barton student-athletes. As you become a part of that system, you can reach out to your sisters and get that support.”

Searcy moved to Wilson last year when her dad became president of Barton, and the transition compounded the already difficult challenges facing all eighth-grade girls.

However, she said playing volleyball gave her an avenue through which to connect with other girls at her new middle school and grow within a community. It also gave her confidence as she stepped into another new world this year as a freshman at Fike.

“Joining the team at Toisnot (Middle School) was such an easy, fun way to meet people and connect to a new environment,” Searcy said. “My coaches helped me learn about more than just volleyball. They invited me to their churches and helped me adjust to my new school. My teammates became my first friends and strong support system. This year, walking into high school wearing a volleyball jersey was the best. I felt a connection and a pride that lasted the entire first day, and seeing my teammates in the hallway was such a comfort.

“Playing a sport in school provides a valuable connection that offers an identity so important to us all, but especially to me, the new girl in middle school and the high school freshman.”

The Graybeal twins shared some of the lessons they have already learned through soccer, some of them reflecting insight well beyond their age.

“We met our best friends through soccer,” Sydney Graybeal noted. “Soccer has taught us about teamwork and how to work together. I usually play offense and Kamryn plays defense. I really like to score, but we have learned that every position on the team is important, and it is just as important to keep the other team from scoring as it is for our team to score.

“Soccer is also good exercise, and it has helped us to run and get into shape. We have won a lot of games and won a state championship, but we have also lost. Losing is part of sports and it even makes you better. We just always try to do our best.”

Turner candidly shared some of the obstacles she had to overcome as a female playing on a male golf team from seventh grade through high school in Alabama.

 “Have you ever felt like you were not welcome somewhere? That feeling was exactly how I felt,” Turner said. “… If I had a bad day on the course, the guys would make any excuse to try and make me feel better, but it only made me feel worse. They would say that the wind was too strong for a girl to hit the ball through and that because I was a girl, playing from the men’s tees was just too long. That was the team that I was on. It was not a positive one by any means, and those guys were definitely jerks.”

Toni Varacchi, left, head girls soccer coach and director of athletics at Fike High School, receives the 2017 Carole McKeel Award for her many contributions to the participation of girls and women in sports over more than two decades. At right, presenting the award, is McKeel, a member of the Barton College Athletic Hall of Fame and the school's first head coach in women's basketball and volleyball.

Turner’s play eventually elevated her to team captain as a junior, but the differential treatment continued.

“Of course, the guys on the team had a problem with me being captain. Why should I listen to her? She’s just a girl. I understand I’m a girl, but I’m a girl who can out-drive you by 50 yards from the same tee on any day of the week. Everyone knew of my goal to play collegiate golf, but they did not support me.  For them, it was never about winning a tournament, it was only about not letting the wimpy girl beat them.”

However, Turner persevered, and things began to change for both her and the school her senior year.

“There were finally other girls interested in golf and wanted to join a team,” she said. “I was finally on a team that I could relate to, and motivation was done in a positive way. The days of being torn down are over. They supported me the day I signed at Barton, and they supported me all the way to graduation. In my opinion, that’s the best thing about being a part of a team. I’m a member of two amazing teams at Barton, and I can feel the support from miles away.”

Concluding the presentations, Howard pointed out that this year marks the 45th anniversary of Title IX legislation which afforded more opportunities for girls and women in athletics. She mentioned some of the greats in her sport, tennis, who paved the way for her. She quoted one of the game’s legends, Billy Jean King, as saying ‘‘pressure is a privilege.”

“We don’t usually think of pressure in a positive way, do we?” she asked. “But with pressure comes the opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone, to take risks. With pressure comes challenges, and the chance to achieve new goals, in sports and in life.

“In the broadcasting world, pressure and deadlines are routine. Whether I’m producing a commercial for a client who wants 30 minutes worth of information and content in his 30-second commercial, or my team and I are producing a two-hour live broadcast of the Christmas Parade from downtown Raleigh, the clock is always ticking. You have a definite start and end time. You must get the commercial or program written and produced with accuracy, creativity, and get in and out on time.”

During the event, the Carole McKeel Award was presented to Toni Varacchi, head girls soccer coach and director of athletics at Fike High School, for her many contributions to the participation of girls and women in sports over more than two decades.

“I’d like to thank Barton College, Gary Hall and Miss McKeel, and I’d like to thank Wilson County Schools and Fike High School for giving me the opportunity to be a teacher as well as a coach and influence many young athletes along the way. I’m honored to receive this award, and I hope to leave behind a legacy similar to Miss McKeel’s.”