Surrounded by her college teammates, Heather Mitts sat crying at the 1999 soccer banquet.
Her sadness did not only come because she would miss her teammates and friends. After spending four years as a member of the UF soccer team, the senior defender was not ready to end her career.
“There were a million pictures of me in the newspaper crying,” Mitts said. “It was really hard for me. I love college soccer. I love nothing more than putting on a Gator jersey and going out there with these fans and the atmosphere and my teammates. I was not ready to hang up my cleats.”
Mitts’ career will not have to end. With plans of a women’s professional soccer league to begin play in April 2001, she will have the chance to continue playing.
When she was younger, Mitts believed college soccer the highest level she would be able to play.
Now, with the inception of the Women’s United Soccer Association, she will have an opportunity to play at the next level.
Mitts and other former Gators already have signed contracts to enter the draft next February.
Before the draft, they will have to participate in a combine with other players from across the country.
“I don’t think the whole pro soccer thing has really sunk in,” Mitts said. “And I don’t think it will until it actually happens.”
WUSA will begin with a minimum of eight teams from across the country pending approval from the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Two women’s amateur soccer teams rumored to be possible sites – the Maryland Pride and the Tampa Bay Extreme – will have Mitts as part of their roster this summer.
However, she said Tampa would be her first choice.
“I would love to stay in Florida, but I guess I don’t really have a choice,” Mitts said. “Just as long as I am playing, I don’t really care.”
The new league comes at a time when interest in women’s soccer is peaking.
Women coming out of college like Mitts will have the opportunity to do something they dreamed of as little girls.
“Our game has been on a never-ending ascension, and this like the culmination of everything we have ever dreamed of,” said Anson Dorrance, coach of the 15-time national champion North Carolina women’s soccer team.
Being part of the inaugural league will not be a new feeling for Mitts.
She said the excitement she will feel as part of one of the first teams will be similar to what she felt when the Gators won the first soccer national championship in school history back in 1998.
“It’s just like being able to be the first national championship team here at Florida,” Mitts said. “That is something I will never ever forget. Everyone will remember the first team, so to be able to be a part of that is kind of a neat landmark.”
Other members of the national championship team echo Mitts’ sentiment.
Former UF forward Sarah Yohe also has signed a contract to be drafted in Februrary.
“It’s great to be a part of the beginning of this league,” Yohe said. “It’s something no one else will be able to say they were a part of.”
Of course, the special feeling also carries with it a responsibility.
The first players in the league have a responsibility to the country.
Little girls now will look up to the members of these teams.
“Just having that is special and always being able to carry that is special,” said former Gator Danielle Fotopoulos, who was a member of the omen’s World Cup team. “It holds somewhat of a responsibility, being aware and supporting it, as well.”
Mitts not only will be able live out her dream to play professionally, but she has every indication she will excel in the league.
The Cincinnati native is favored to go high in the draft after being an integral part of UF’s four Southeastern Conference championships and NCAA championship.
“She has just finished playing recently, and she had a tremendous season last year. I think that is why she will have a high draft status,” UF coach Becky Burleigh said. “I am certain that somebody with Heather’s experience – more current – will have an advantage.”
With the accolades Mitts has racked up in her time at UF, she has caught attention in the collegiate soccer world.
“I was really impressed with her in all kinds of ways – not only because she is an extraordinary soccer player,” said Dorrance, who coached Mitts in the senior All-Star game in February. “She is very tough and very committed, but also wonderfully coachable and a great human being.”
While the league will be in need of players that grab the attention of American society, Mitts will add not only her athletic ability but her off-the-field personality as well.
Dorrance compared her value to that of soccer great Mia Hamm.
“I can see Heather Mitts not only being a great player on the field, but also having the charisma and attractiveness to the media and television cameras that Mia has off the field,” he said. “She has the kind of image that is going to help sell our league.”
Mitts will work with fellow teammates to create an image for the new league.
In addition to Mitts and Yohe, Fotopoulos is one of the founding players of WUSA.
With so many UF players involved, Mitts will have the extra excitement of possibly playing on the same team as or against some of them.
“If we played together, I think that would be awesome,” Yohe said. “We have played together for the last four years, so I think we have a pretty good idea of how the other plays.
“If we play against each other, she might end up marking me. I think we would have a hard time being serious.”
Focusing on soccer
For now, Mitts is focused capitalizing on the opportunities she will have with the new league.
“It’s about time,” Mitts said. “Soccer is the No. 1 sport in every country but here. It’s kind of a letdown, but hopefully this will be the boost that we need. It’s the perfect time to be playing, and I am just lucky.”
While she will miss her teammates and the chance to play for the UF, Mitts is excited about the opportunities that lie before her.
“Right now I guess I am in limbo trying to figure out what it is going to be like,” Mitts said. “If it can be better than college soccer, then I will really be living my dream out.”