By Harrison Tarr
For the Observer
Every March, people around the United States allocate 31 days to the celebration of women in American history. Given it’s national stature, Womens’ History Month is often interpreted as an opportunity to recognize individuals on the biggest stage, leaving local females leaders overlooked; the city of Opelika — and fans of Opelika High School athletics — are certainly not short on individuals to thank for the development of the lady Dawgs of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Jacklyn Button, head coach of the OHS flag football and women’s soccer programs, had the opportunity to reflect on the progress she has witnessed since first arriving at the school nine years ago. At that time, an all-girls soccer team was merely an idea with little groundwork completed.
“When I first started here, Soccer was co-ed before I got here,” Button said. “It was another thing where girls had to compete for a spot on the boys’ team — for soccer at least.”
When Button joined the soccer staff at OHS, she knew that there was a need for an all-girls program, all she needed was to figure out how to make it happen.
“I was an assistant varsity my first year,” Button said. “So I kind of coached under a coach that had come from Callaway, Georgia. I learned a lot from her but, like, how do you even start a team?”
With the support of her fellow coaches, the then-newly hired coach began her search to field a roster of strictly females on the pitch.
“It was kind of like ‘let’s have tryouts first,’” Button said. “Do we have numbers and involvement?”
When Button concluded that her squad had the numbers — and that the interest within the community was there — she took her case to the school board and Opelika Womens’ soccer was born.
“After that, we went to the board and said ‘hey, we have enough for a team, will you approve us having a girls soccer team,’” Button said. “They went through those channels and got it approved. From there on out it was just building the program and getting supplies.”
The ninth-year head coach recalls the excitement from within the program when her first group of girls came to realize the reality of having a team of their own.
“When we were finally able to generate enough numbers and interest to create their own girls’ team, (the girls) were like ‘wow, we are actually a solid team,’” Button said. “We’ve got enough players where we don’t have to count on the boys.”
Since her program’s inception, Button has seen the culture in and around it grow by leaps and bounds. OHS now comfortably fields both a varsity and a JV squad and shows no signs of slowing down.
“We’re continuing growing the program with spots opening up and creating a JV team generates more interest and more involvement,” Button said. “I love that it keeps growing here, not just soccer and flag football but all sports for women.”
According to the program’s leader, the Dawgs maintain an ever-growing mindset, referring to the likes of social media to bolster their brand and engagement.
“It’s mostly word of mouth but now it’s a lot of social media,” Button said. “We’re trying to push stuff out on Instagram to highlight the girls and have stuff these kids will see.”
Button mentioned that using new — and more effective — mediums has made life easier in terms of engagement and has saved them from slapping posters around the hallways of OHS.
“Back in the day, we used to make handwritten posters to post stuff around the school,” Button said. “I even try on the announcements in the morning where — if we’ve done well — I’ll send a game summary to the announcements so people are hearing that the girls are doing great over the loudspeakers.”
Although many may find it odd to fathom at first, recruitment does not stop at the high school level, coaches such as Button at OHS are committed to captivating youth interest within the community.
“I’ve talked about taking a couple of the girls to the middle school and elementary school in their uniforms,” Button said. “Just to talk to some of the younger girls about bringing the soccer ball and ‘hey, I’m an athlete you can look up to.’ I really want to push that this year.”
While certainly proud of her accomplishments on the pitch, the longtime member of the OHS athletics department has committed to undertaking a new challenge of similar stature: building a flag football program from the ground up.
“I think it’s just exciting for these girls to see more opportunities and to be able to grow,” Button said. “Especially with the introduction of flag football this year, giving a new set of athletes a chance to try out for something that maybe they haven’t done all their life.”
Button believes that the implementation of the sport at Opelika presents a unique opportunity to a group of athletes who may have been overlooked elsewhere as well as an opportunity for girls to prove themselves as a whole.
“It gives them the chance to be like ‘oh I can throw a football like my brother did,’” Button said. “It’s stuff like that, for them to be able to see that they can perform in these roles — and do well — that I think has been a great opportunity for some of these girls.”
The newly-added sport also brings forward the possibility of using other popular mens’ sports to generate interest for womens’ athletics as a whole.
“We talked about potentially — during one of the football games next year — having flag football come out at halftime and do a couple of drills or put on something,” Button said. “Then all the people that are there with male football get to see the female side of it too.”
While reaching adult audiences is certainly a large factor in generating interest for female sports, Button noted that student-athletes already work together to generate mutual interest amongst their peers.
“Nowadays, I think it’s a lot of social media,” Button said. “The guys will repost stuff and the girls will, they keep promoting each other to be better and stronger. I think that really helps grow on both sides.”
The support between the groups is not limited to the world of social media; the mutual respect between groups translates to the field.
“Our girls love to stay and support the boys’ soccer team and the boys get there early to cheer on the girls’ soccer team,” Button said. “The players are kind of getting there and doing that too.”
When asked about where she derives her passion for coaching and program development, Button referred to longtime OHS women’s basketball coach Devin Booth.
“Devin Booth has been our basketball coach in the past, she’s done it since I’ve been here,” Button said. “She’s somebody that I came in and learned from. She was a P.E. teacher here and kind of modeled tough love with the basketball girls.”
Button claims to have drawn influence from Booth as to how to hold girls accountable, develop personal relationships and simultaneously continue to build a program.
“I really enjoyed the way she would get onto them at practice and be hard on them but then have a great relationship with them outside of practice,” Button said.
The head coach believes that her program is headed in the right direction as it moves toward further expansion.
“We, right now, don’t have an Opelika middle school girls soccer team,” Button said. “So I’m hoping — in the next few years here — to be getting interest for that middle school team to feed into our JV/Varsity. It would be another huge way to grow our program from those younger kids coming up.”
Button is deservingly proud of her work and is excited to see Bulldog soccer progress.
“I do think as — even the past nine years that I’ve been here — going from just a girls varsity to now being a JV and a Varsity, and being competitive, has spoken volumes for how far we’ve come,” Button said.
With the likes of Booth and Button laying the foundation for success at Opelika, Bulldog nation must also be excited for new faces to add to the storied history of Lady Dawg athletics. First-year head softball coach Jessica Thornton spoke about her excitement to have her hand in developing the future of the community.
“So this is my first year in Opelika and I could not have gotten a better group of kids,” Thornton said. “They’re just character-wise, not even taking softball into the equation, they are honestly the best kids that I’ve come across at their age.”
As a coach who values character before athleticism, Thornton feels as though she’s walked into the perfect scenario on both fronts.
“Honestly, that’s the best part of this job,” Thornton said. “My coaching philosophy is person over player. I care more about the kids more as people and about where they’re going in life rather than where they’re going with softball.”
The skipper claims that the moral compass of her group presents them with the opportunity to be successful long beyond their playing days.
“I think that’s honestly the best part of coaching,” Thornton said. “With them having such great character that I think they’re all going to go on to do great things.”
To Thornton, creating great athletes is about more than home runs and gold-glove plays; developing young leaders takes precedent.
“I think it’s probably the most important part — and the benefit of sports — that they learn how to be leaders,” Thornton said. “And they learn you can lead in different ways, there’s leading by example, there’s being a vocal leader, being the behind-the-scenes leader.”
Despite having taken the reins of the program in 2021, the new head coach continuously stresses the importance of setting a positive example in all assets of life.
“It’s just getting them to understand that, no matter what they do in life, they’re going to have to be some type of leader,” Thornton said. “It all fits into the puzzle of whatever it is they’re doing.”
By developing a culture of ‘person over player’ within her organization, Thornton hopes that her group of softball players will not only continue to grow the program but set a precedent for young female athletes within the community.
“I think that just being the role models to the younger kids in the community,” Thornton said. “Getting involved in some of the rec leagues, going to the middle school games — I know I have several kids that make sure they’re in the stands when middle school has a game — and being those role models for the upcoming generation.”
In unison with complimenting her group, the head coach made a point to compliment the support received from their male counterparts on the diamond and the role they play in uplifting female athletes.
“I think just the camaraderie that we have with the baseball team, and with some other people, that we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Thornton said. “Female sports have come a long way.”
With a solid base to build upon, Thornton is excited to see female sports continue to grow in Opelika behind what she describes as phenomenal support from the community.
“I’m most excited for the potential,” Thornton said. “Opelika has a great community and the community support is going to be the biggest puzzle piece for our success so I’m excited to get involved in the rec leagues and not only better our sport but all female sports.”
On a national scale, Women’s History month is certainly centered around celebrating the remarkable work done by individuals to better the world we live in. Opelika is certainly no exception; in the realm of sports, the community should continue to celebrate the rich history which proceeds it while simultaneously commending the players and coaches who are actively moving female sports in the right direction.