“Every game, I watch the other keeper warm up, to see what tendencies they might have. Tonight, I found myself watching our warmups. Now, I release them, I have my assistant coaches, the boys, 12 seniors – they don’t need me micromanaging warmups, so I release them and that’s a habit we create at the beginning of the season. So I’m free to watch the other keeper. But tonight I found myself watching my own team. Facing the school, the mountains I love, and this view, in this amazing setting, and yeah … it got me. I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is it.’ And then I thought no, this is not about me, this has to be about the boys. This is the seniors’ night, and we’re fighting tooth and nail to get into state. So I just had to snap myself out, and I took my moment to breathe, and one of my assistants comes up, John Carroll, who played for me, an ’08 grad, and John just gave me a hug and said, ‘It’s all good.’ And it was.”
Julie Walters swallows the lump in her throat, wipes her eyes and stands up, and she surveys her office, the pictures, the trophies, the 23 years of memories, the four state championships and the hundreds of surrogate sons, some of whom have come back to coach with her, for her, and she looks around and she sighs.
“What am I going to do with all this stuff?”
• • •
Walters knows it, feels it. She’s been the boys soccer coach at Catalina Foothills High School for more than two decades. She started the program from scratch, moving over from Orange Grove Middle School, where she taught eighth-grade physical education and coached four sports: baseball, softball and boys and girls soccer. She’s a “lifer” in the district, she says; She was a student-teacher while still at the University of Arizona and she had a job offer before she even graduated.
But with a 4-year-old daughter to raise and a lot of golf to play, Walters knew the end was near a while back. Before the season, she told the boys.
“She probably had a little emotion, but she didn’t show it,” senior center-back Grant Hubble said. “She told us at the beginning of the season, and it wasn’t a big deal. She said she knew it was time. What, 23 years? There’s only so much soccer you can take.”
On a chilly Thursday night at Catalina Foothills, Walters is still in it.
Despite a sparkling record, the Falcons are on the state playoff bubble, and they know it. A win over Casa Grande, and probably a good one, is needed or things will end on this field, today. This dreary, rainy, solemn field. No way to go out.
“Get behind, Miguel!”
“Keep working, Jeremy!”
She’ll miss this.
“Good idea! Find the target!”
“Work it! Work it! We gotta be better than that!”
The Falcons go up early and add a second goal midway through the first half on a beautiful header off a corner kick. Walters barely reacts.
You wonder, how many goals has she seen on this field?
• • •
The seconds tick off the clock, the countdown on Walters’ coaching career nearing its end, and the game is well in hand. Catalina Foothills will go on to shut out Casa Grande, 3-0. On Friday, the 20-2-1 Falcons were rewarded with a Division II state playoff berth. Foothills, a No. 14 seed, will travel to third-seeded Nogales at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
With a little under three minutes left, a “Julie! Julie!” chant breaks out. Walters drops her head. The game ends, and she takes a few steps and claps. A few hugs. She turns toward the crowd and claps and waves, and they cheer.
After a few minutes, she gathers the players for a post-game talk. They wrap their arms around one another. They break, and there are smiles all around. Families trickle down to the field, mothers holding their ceremonial flowers. Walters grabs her bouquet.
“Ya, Julie!” a student yells. “This is your senior day, too!”
• • •
Back in her office, minutes after the game, Walters finds a moment to sit and reflect.
She’s rejected that so far.
“I haven’t started doing the mental inventory of things I’m going to miss,” she says, flatly.
This is not someone who takes stock, not until she’s right and ready. She’s reminded every day of her long career, of the players she’s nurtured and taught and watched grow into men. Just the day before, she had a conversation with a former player who celebrated his 37th birthday. She’s now teaching the kids of her own former students.
“We had an alumni game, and we had a guy from ’96 come back,” Hubble said. “He was a senior when we weren’t even born, and you see that she’s been like a second mother to hundreds of guys.”
That, she’ll miss.
“I don’t think it has hit me,” she said. “If I’ve had a role in helping them become who they are as adults in a positive way, that’s awesome. That part I’m sure I’ll profoundly miss. That will be … you can’t replicate that.”
She’ll still teach. Her star pupil now is her daughter, and she would love to stay on as Falcons’ boys golf coach if possible, even as she retires from teaching.
And there’s the golf.
“Ideally it would be fabulous if I could get a job at a golf course … so the cost of golf was reduced,” she said. “I talked to Ventana during the (golf) season, I’ll talk to City Golf. It doesn’t matter; I’ll pick up range balls as long as it gives me access to golf.”
• • •
As she gazes around her office, Walters notes the stacks upon stacks of drawers.
“Drawers full of training plans,” she says, nodding to the task that lies ahead. “Every season. Every practice plan I ever wrote. I have them still. What am I gonna do with all that? Am I gonna miss that part? It’s all just gonna be gone. But it was never monotonous. It never bogged me down. It’s who I am. Having started coaching so long ago, it’s part of who I am.
“… So it’ll be interesting to discover who I become when I walk away from this.”
She’s excited for the journey. Walters has been preparing herself for this, to relinquish this part of her identity, the power, the control, the competition.
“They tell me I’m a lot softer now, the guys when they come back,” Walters said.
“ ‘Where are the two-a-days, Julie?’ Maybe it’s true.”
Next year, maybe it’ll hit her. Maybe it has to end for her to know what it’s going to be like to go from Coach Julie Walters to Julie Walters. She knows she’ll miss so much, though. Her boys.
“I don’t know how it happens, I don’t know if other female coaches who coach males have it, but it definitely seems I have it with a lot of players,” she said. “I wouldn’t say across board, that would be arrogant. But for a lot of players, the personal relationship I have with them is different than what they experience with a male coach. I don’t know why.
“If I knew, I’d write a book, and I wouldn’t have to find a golf job.”