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The Driver’s Seat: Despite big-time pedigree, Wilson comfortable in her own Division III skin

The Driver’s Seat: Despite big-time pedigree, Wilson comfortable in her own Division III skin

ARLINGTON, Va. – Gayle Wilson was walking through University Hall at the University of Virginia as a student-athlete as a sophomore in the late 1980s when she heard another soccer coach holler at her.

It was Bruce Arena, who at the time was on his way to becoming the most successful men's college soccer coach in the country.

Wilson's brother, Grant, played for Arena at Virginia and at the time was an assistant for the women's program while his sister was on the team. Arena jokingly told Wilson to make sure she told her brother to see him.

"It was startling because he usually kept to himself, and to hear that booming New York accent after I ran by caught me off guard," recalls Wilson, who has been the head women's soccer coach at Marymount since 2006.

Wilson has been around soccer, and sometimes American soccer royalty, much of her life since she grew up playing on boys' teams as a young girl in nearby Falls Church. Her brother Grant still plays golf with Arena, who recently took over the U.S. national men's program for the second time.

She went to Haycock Elementary School and was a few years behind Marcia McDermott, a future U.S. team player who starred at North Carolina and is now the head coach at Army West Point.

Wilson, a soccer standout at McLean High and the 1986 Virginia High School Player of the Year, was getting ready to have supper with her family as a high school student when she got a telephone call from Anson Dorrance, the ultra-successful head women's coach at North Carolina who has won 21 national titles.

She was well aware of the prowess of the Tar Heels but politely told Dorrance she didn't want to waste his time in the recruiting process.

"It just wasn't the right fit," said Wilson.

Instead she headed to Virginia, where she was an All-ACC performer.

She graduated from Virginia in 1990, was inducted into the Metro D.C. Virginia Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005 and has coached travel soccer for several years. Wilson was part of the U.S. national player pool from 1985 to 2002 and she was a member of the powerhouse club from 1990-92.

Despite soccer connections that reach to the national and world stage, Wilson has found a niche at Marymount even though she had no Division III connections before arriving in north Arlington.

"When I came to Marymount I was surprised there were not more local kids on the roster, since the region is so rich and deep," she said. "So I switched that focus to looking for players close to home."

"But I also recognize kids were ready to fly the coup and get out," Wilson added. "And there has been a big shift in women's soccer with student-athletes who want to stay closer to home. And there is a lot more local interest (now) in Marymount. The internships here are fabulous. Kids are coming in with information with what they want to do during and after their college experience."

And you won't often find her telling "back when I played" stories to her players, unless it is relevant. 

"She is pretty low-key about it," said Kirsten Campbell, a now-former player who recently completed her four-year career with the Saints. "She doesn't even try to compare (eras). Only if we ask." 

So what does Wilson strive to do? 

"She focuses on accountability and being able to hold you to a high standard on and off the field," said Campbell, who is from Strasburg, Virginia and plans to attend graduate school for physical therapy at MU in the fall. 

Those standards are no surprise to Kathy Lacey, a former player at the University of Maryland who has known Wilson since they went to regional camps in high school and then competed against each other in college. 

Wilson aided the arrival of Lacey's son, Brandon, at MU, where he played for the men's team last fall before seeking a pro opportunity in Europe. 

"She has done so much to help girls get into soccer, just because she is so passionate about it," said Lacey, the former head girls coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High in Greenbelt, Maryland. "She is not a big screamer; she does a good job of teaching and coaching. She has the exact right temperament (required). You would want your daughter to play for Gayle." 

While the Saints were 7-9 last season, the roster included 12 freshmen – the most ever under Wilson.

"I thought we did well with a new and very young team," Wilson said. "We had six freshmen who started regularly, which was exciting and challenging. I am excited about that (freshman) class aging up a year."

With that in mind Wilson will take her team to Germany and Austria this coming summer. Among the local squads they will play is the second division women's team at FC Bayern Munich, one of the top clubs in Germany.

It will be the second time Wilson has taken a MU team to Europe - the first was in 2012 when the Saints went to Italy. Wilson also took a select team to Italy and Switzerland in 2014 along with Doug Bradley, the son of the late George Mason University Hall of Fame soccer coach Gordon Bradley.

The Saints will raise funds for this summer trip, which is not a typical experience for Division III teams.

"I love that Division III remains competitive to meet the goals of the girls that want to continue to play and also to have the opportunity to broaden their college experience outside of athletics," Wilson said. "I feel like a significant part of my time is taking care of my kids here. I feel a huge sense of responsibility to the families that chose Marymount and trust their daughters to my care. It is very important they leave here having played for and developed relationships with their coaches."


Editor's note: David Driver is a special consultant to the MU athletic department. He can be reached at

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