The First Season

Just 16 miles away from the award-winning IU men’s team, a rural high school ignites a legacy of soccer.

By Marissa Meador
Photos by Jacob Spudich
Design and development by Rahul Suresh Ubale

Published Dec. 13, 2023

    The Eastern Greene Thunderbirds, embarking on their first year as a high school soccer team, are still learning to fly.

    When the co-ed team takes the field at Mooresville Christian Academy on a late summer day, they are halfway through the season and still winless. Though the T-Birds' 26 players come from an array of other sports at Eastern Greene High School, few have experience with soccer.

    Yet the smattering of red shirts remains determined. 

    As the players trade the ball up and down the field, the two teams prove themselves equally matched, with neither able to take control of momentum. 

    Miraculously, the T-Birds take a 1-point lead, rallying the small enclave of parents in folding chairs tacked along the sideline. Then tragedy strikes — in a scuffle near the goal, a gangly player taps the ball too hard. It rolls in. 

    As the dust settles, it is the T-Birds’ freshman midfielder Timothy McCoin who has scored — for the other team. 

    The Thunderbirds hail from rural Greene County, just 16 miles from one of the best collegiate soccer programs in the nation. Despite their proximity to such success, the coaches and players have long struggled to bring soccer to Eastern Greene.

    T-Birds head coach Kurtis Moffitt, whose bushy white beard and booming voice betray a softer, more emotional side, jumpstarted his quest to bring soccer to Eastern Greene when he started a junior high league in the summer of 2021. The first practice was on a field behind Cincinnati Christian Church, bordered by an electric pole and snaked with mole hills and patches of gravel. 

    Alt Text
    Eastern Greene head coach Kurtis Moffitt looks on from the sideline in a game against the Bloomington Bobcats on Sept. 28, 2023, at Karst Farm Park in Bloomington. Moffitt and assistant coach Tracy Crane always emphasize talking and passing among players.

    Enter the T-Birds' assistant coach, Tracy Crane. A former college soccer player and coach who instructs her players with precision and a blunt attitude, Crane found the field’s conditions unacceptable and allowed the team to practice on the Crane family farm instead.

    Though people at Eastern Greene had tried and failed to start a high school soccer team for years, the recruiting success of Moffitt’s junior high team exposed a genuine interest in soccer in the area.

    In a high school of around 300 students, Crane’s initiative to prove they had the numbers and would not siphon players from the football team — a major concern of the community according to Moffitt and Crane — was the recipe for success. 

    In October 2022, Crane finally secured board approval for the high school team. 

    After receiving the green light, Moffitt and Crane then had the delicate task of organizing a team of varying abilities and backgrounds. 

    One player, junior midfielder Clara Hawk, showed incredible speed on the field due to her running background but struggled to stop herself from catching the ball with her hands. Zac West, a senior defender with a background in soccer, had to miss some practices for football, which he had joined as a kicker before the school board approved the soccer team.

    When the team suffered a blowout loss to Bedford North Lawrence High School in their first scrimmage in August, Moffitt expected to lose at least five players. 

    That is, until junior midfielder Roman Valentine approached him with a grin. 

    “I didn’t know what I was doing, but that was fun!” Roman said.

    A yellow butterfly crosses the turf at Mooresville High School’s Pioneer Classic Tournament on Sept. 23, hosted by a 3A school at a facility that dwarfed the T-Birds' humble grass field. Though Eastern Greene has just faced a crushing loss at the hands of the host team in the first game of the tournament, there is a sense of lightness in the air. 

    Moms of the players swarm the group as they gather in the shade, handing out sandwiches rapid-fire. Among their cornucopia of snacks are bananas, Capri Suns and pickle juice — a magical elixir that vanishes cramps, according to the T-Birds. Just a few feet away, three young boys kick a soccer ball into the chain-link fence, its metallic shudder mimicking the pull of the net.

    It’s been four games since they played Mooresville Christian Academy on Sept. 11, and they still have not clinched a victory. This approaching rematch with the school, who is also in the tournament, provides the opportunity for redemption.

    The match begins, and immediately the T-Birds struggle to communicate with one another on the field, a critique reiterated by the coaches time and time again. 

    One voice, however, rises above the chatter. 


    It is a primal scream from the T-Birds' freshman goalkeeper, Bryce Bowersock, as he sweeps the ball up and sends it to the other side of the field.

    It is an unwritten rule in soccer that the goalie should indicate when he’s heading for the ball, but the intensity of Bryce’s scream, out-of-step with his skinny frame and freckles, almost seemed to confuse and intimidate the opposing players. 

    A player on the bench confirms: he screams like that every time. 

    Beyond ferocious stops at the goal, the T-Birds seem to have sharpened their game and found a rhythm. German exchange student and junior midfielder Finn Wulbrandt scores the first goal, but it’s quickly matched by MCA. 

    Alt Text
    Eastern Greene junior midfielder Finn Wulbrandt (left), senior defender Zac West (center) and senior forward Maddox Ault (right) celebrate after a goal against the Bloomington Bobcats on Sept. 28, 2023, at Karst Farm Park in Bloomington. Finn Wulbrandt, an exchange student from Germany, started playing midseason.

    “No more ties,” Crane yells. “Go, let’s do this!”

    Freshman midfielder Ethan Moffitt, one of the sons of the head coach, answers with a goal, putting the T-Birds in the lead. When the ball hits the back of the net, Bryce lets out his signature scream again, this time in joy. 

    Momentum carries into the second half with another goal from Finn. The tone has shifted, putting the T-Birds in a rare position. MCA’s players start to unravel, and the MCA goalkeeper struggles to reign in his frustration. 

    “We are not losing to this team,” their keeper calls out to his team. 

    The T-Birds do not respond. 

    But trouble is mounting for Eastern Greene. Finn, who has scored 2 of their 3 goals so far, falls to the ground. Another player hoists him up and helps him walk to the bench, while another player hunts for pickle juice. 

    “I’m out,” Finn says, defeated. “I’ve got the biggest cramp of my whole life.”

    Things start to peel apart. Junior midfielder Clara Hawk gets possession of the ball several times near the goal but fails to keep control of it, at one point ending up on the ground with the ball flying. 

    Alt Text
    Eastern Greene junior midfielder Clara Hawk volleys the ball in the air against the Bloomington Bobcats, a homeschool soccer club, on Sept. 28, 2023, at Karst Farm Park in Bloomington. This is Hawk's first time playing soccer.

    Now the score is tied once more, at 3-3. It’s a spot Eastern Greene is used to, always being on the edge of victory with the dread of knowing one wrong move could result in yet another defeat. 

    But then Ethan scores again. It is the final goal of the game — the winning goal — as the final minutes drain without a response from MCA.

    The team is almost too stunned to celebrate, quickly gathering their things amid a few hugs and the obligatory “good game” with the other team. 

    But at the post-game huddle, the coach reminds them that was the first win in school history. Years from now, they will be the team that broke in the cleats, blazed the trail, shattered the barriers.

    On a chilly October morning, Zac, Clara, Esther, Finn and senior forward Oliver Pate get together for breakfast at Cloverfield Restaurant South in Bloomington. 

    Zac orders Lucky Charm pancakes with chocolate chips, bacon and scrambled eggs. Finn orders the same, sans chocolate chips. They report back: it just tasted like a normal pancake, not “magically delicious.”

    Across the table, Clara and Esther peel open a strawberry jam packet and taste it. Oliver, who is still recovering from an injury, arrives in Shrek Crocs. 

    The players mostly live in rural areas. While their school is addressed to Bloomfield, it is actually 12 miles away from the town. Surrounded by fields, churches and abandoned gas stations, teenagers don’t have much to do for fun other than walk around Walmart or spend time at one another’s homes. 

    Oliver lists off some things they like to do for fun shooting bottle rockets, hunting and playing hide-and-seek at Clara’s house while Clara jokes about “fishing in the crawfish hole.” 

    But soccer gave the kids an opportunity to hang out on the field, with much of their time absorbed by practice, games and schoolwork. Without it, the kids describe feeling almost bored. 

    When asked if they feel like they’re trailblazers, the group is modest. Esther says it’s more like they’re “bushwhacking a trail.” Zac describes it as “those dudes in Ohio who first got cars,” painting a scene of swerving Ford Model T cars rumbling over cobblestone before the invention of traffic lights. 

    Alt Text
    Eastern Greene senior defender Zac West prepares to throw the ball in against the Bloomington Bobcats, a homeschool soccer club, on Sept. 28, 2023, at Karst Farm Park in Bloomington. West is team captain of the Eastern Greene Thunderbirds.

    Though he’s graduating soon, Zac wants to return to help the team next year. In his role as captain, Zac had learned a lot about how to coach people, including knowing how to respond to someone when they make a mistake.

    “I want to win soccer games too, but we gotta teach these darn kids,” he said. 

    The Rock Creek Lions are a hive mind.

    Though they knew the Lions were the toughest team in their division going into the first game of sectionals Oct. 2, the T-Birds did not expect the sheer interconnectedness of their opponents. 

    The Sellersburg, Indiana, team demonstrated a choreographed grace, exercising a discipline the T-Birds' coaches say can only be developed through the muscle memory of endless drills.

    The match quickly becomes a game of “monkey-in-the-middle,” players say, as they hopelessly test their speed against Rock Creek’s relentless movement and sophisticated passing. Goalkeeper Caden McCormick valiantly defends against a barrage of shots from the Lions, eventually succumbing. Rock Creek continues to mark up the scoresheet, and frustration mounts. 

    Alt Text
    Eastern Greene sophomore goalkeeper Caden McCormick lunges to save the ball after a shot against the Bloomington Bobcats on Sept. 28, 2023, at Karst Farm Park in Bloomington. The game against the Bobcats was Eastern Greene's final game before sectionals.

    By halftime, winning seems out of the question. In the end, the T-Birds lost 8-2 to Rock Creek.

    As the game winds down and twilight descends, the floodlights switch on. Exhausted and under pressure, Finn flings himself on the grass. When he stands, he kicks the ground, sending a clump of dirt flying with the tip of his cleat. 

    It was a sour end to a sweet season. For some of the players, it was not only their first high school soccer season, but their last. 

    Zac emerges from the postgame huddle crying. It is a quiet kind, signaled by red-rimmed eyes and the vanishing of his characteristic smile. The whole season, Zac had been the one to comfort, to inspire, to lead. Now, his team was here for him, flooding him with hugs. 

    But on the 74-minute bus ride to Eastern Greene, the T-Birds transform back into a group of teenagers. The bus makes a stop at Circle K, where ravenous players grab half-dozen boxes of donuts, entire tubs of ice cream and an endless stream of chips and soda. Back on the bus, they eat, chat, scroll on TikTok or sleep, cherishing one of their last moments as a team. 

    As the kids lug their bags off the bus and head toward their parents’ cars, headlights cast a glow on the hill by the school, where a gravel road leads to Eastern Greene’s new soccer field. Its verdant green now weathered, it awaits next season, when a new version of the T-Birds will return.