By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – The film script would have had the Hartford High girls soccer team triumphing over visiting Windsor on Wednesday night. 

The hosts would have defeated their neighboring rivals, giving themselves and coach Jeff Acker a desperately needed emotional boost after perhaps the longest two weeks in program history. Instead, the Division III Yellowjackets (3-8-1) pounced early, produced a beautiful goal just after halftime and left the Division II Hurricanes behind, 2-0.

Hartford coaches Jeff Acker, right, and Chris Kondi, stand with their players after the final horn. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“I told the girls not everything has a fairy tale ending,” said a haggard Acker, whose 4-9-1 team endured sexual cat calls at Fair Haven on Oct. 7, touching off a reactionary deluge and placing its players and coach in an emotionally exhausting spotlight.

The Hurricanes were losing, 6-0, late in the Fair Haven game when Acker pulled his team off the field. Accumulated comments from teenage boys gathered close to the sideline, but on the opposite side of the team benches, caused a Hartford player to take herself out of the game. Acker prepared a substitute but then realized he was sending her into an untenable situation.

Acker said that not only did Fair Haven’s coach and supervisors not have control of the game’s surrounding environment, they appeared either willfully or blissfully unaware of the comments, their tone and the perpetrators. A Slaters staffer pleasantly wished the visitors a safe ride home as the coach hustled his upset players to their bus.

In the aftermath, Hartford athletic director Jeff Moreno issued strong social media support of Acker and the girls soccer team, while carefully choosing his words in an attempt not to have the Hurricane and Slater communities figuratively square off. Hartford boys soccer players didn’t want to play at Fair Haven several days later, but were talked into it by their elders. Generalized statements against sexual harassment were read aloud before the game.

The attention peaked Oct. 13 when the national newspaper USA Today ran a lengthy article on the topic. The next day, Slate Valley Unified School District superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell issued a private statement addressed only to “Dear Slater Families” and which addressed “the allegations being made” concerning the game. 

The statement promised offending students would be “dealt with in accordance with our disciplinary procedures” and said that “many of the adults at the game, including the officials, our administration and our coach” were not aware of the harassment. It apologized for “any distress” caused to Hartford players and promised changes in game administration procedures.

Hartford’s Jenna Jasmin, left, and Madison Withington, watch Windsor’s Olivia MacLeay approach the ball. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Acker soon called the statement a positive, initial reaction but also insufficient.

“A specific, sincere apology to the girls who were harmed would be helpful,” he wrote on an Upper Valley community Facebook page, noting that the Fair Haven statement wasn’t made public and only saw the wider light of day after a friend alerted Acker to its existance. “That apology should not contain the word “alleged” It’s not ok to create any doubt in the minds of the victims…

“Nobody from (Fair Haven) has reached out to me or the girls… good, I guess, for finally taking the this first step (even though it took 8 days to get there), but the girls deserve much more…”

Hartford’s players donned purple socks during their remaining regular-season games as a signal for sexual harassment awareness. Opposing players, coaches, parents and administrators reached out in person, online and through text messages to offer support. The incident has also resulted in an updated code of conduct for the Hurricanes student section and frequent and productive conversations during the Hartford school day.

“So many teams have showed support when we show up at their fields,” said Hartford captain Nora Knudsen. “They’ve had posters there for us and said things that have been amazing.

“This certainly wasn’t attention we wanted, but we saw that we had a platform and a chance to make a statement and we decided to take it. It’s good that our voices are being heard, but we certainly didn’t want (the harassment) to have happened in the first place.”

Wednesday’s scoring began when Olivia MacLeay scored from the left side of the penalty area on what looked like it might have been a crossing attempt. The sophomore ran on to an Audrey Rupp feed and knocked the ball low and inside the far post. 

Windsor’s Olivia MacLeay raises her arms after scoring. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Elliot Rupp, whom Acker described as perhaps the best opponent his team has faced this season, added an insurance goal two minutes after halftime. The senior sent a 25-yard free kick over the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Erin Thompson and just under the crossbar.

“We didn’t win the game, but the kids had a great day and created memories that will last a lifetime,” Acker said, detailing how the team’s 13 seniors were feted with breakfast and lunch gatherings, wore tiaras and specially made t-shirts and received gifts from their teammates. “They’re the stars of the school for the day.”

Hartford looked understandably fatigued while playing its fourth game in seven days but held a 7-6 edge in shots. Acker, who works two jobs and has five children, dropped his head and took a short walk away from the sideline when the final horn sounded, then gathered his players for remarks and told them he loved them as his closing sentence.

“It was emotional for (Windsor) too,” Acker said. “Under the lights and with a big crowd, once they got up, they got a lift and then their lack of subs maybe didn’t hurt them as much as you’d expect it to.”

How has the tumultuous last two weeks affected your team, Acker was asked. 

“We didn’t want this; nobody wanted this,” said the coach, whose side begins the playoffs next week. “Emotional peaks and valleys are really draining.”

Knudsen, a four-year soccer starter and an ice hockey player, said her current squad has been drawn tighter by the forces pulling at it from the outside. 

“It’s been tiring but everybody’s in it together,” she said. “This has helped everybody take a step forward. We’ve had so much support in picking ourselves up.”

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Windsor’s Miah McAllister (9) and Holly Putnam (4) reach the ball ahead of Hartford’s Beth Dobrich. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.