Lights, camera, Monarchs

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Rain rushed the Soccer Sisters United Soccer Club off Smith Playground, 2100 S. 24th St., Friday evening, sending 17 sets of talented legs scampering. Securing shelter mattered more than converting kicks for one night, but the nation next year will learn the girls have forged quests with setting and netting literal and figurative goals. 


A documentary will laud the African-American youngsters, who have extended their predecessors’ legacy as gifted athletes hoping to overcome stereotypes and scarce resources to achieve greatness.


Just more than a third of the players who receive year-round instruction from coach Walter Stewart, the competitors engaged in drills before their exodus. They share the West Passyunk space with teams from other sports but will soon own the limelight courtesy of filmmaker Eugene Martin, one of many victims of their talents.


“He approached us in late 2007 or early 2008,” Roxborough’s Stewart said of Martin, a Temple University graduate and a University of North Texas assistant professor of radio, television and film who once led a Chestnut Hill team. 


Operating as the Anderson Monarchs, Stewart’s squad handed Martin’s charges gigantic losses, with the latter feeling pressure even before the opening whistle blows.


“Every time we played them, my team would go, ‘Oh, no, not them!’” Martin revealed on www.kickstarter.com, a site that details his three-year project.


Figuring he would film them if he could not beat them, the multiple award-winner met Stewart in fall ’08 at Germantown’s The DePaul Catholic School, where, after leaving the legal world, he has taught fourth grade for four years. 


“I was not hesitant,” Stewart said of having his former coaching companion chronicle his contenders, who comprise what Soccer Sisters United Inc.’s website believes to be the initial and lone competitive soccer club in the country that provides opportunities to inner city African-American girls.


With a reputation for crafting works that possess powerful inspections of poverty, social justice and youth, Martin began filming soon after receiving Stewart’s approval, capturing many of his 500 hours of material in ’09. The early shoots came just after the girls celebrated a nomination as Sports Illustrated Sportsman/Sports Team of the Year Award in ’08, an honor they earned through vanquishing opponents and opposition to their existence.


Stewart, who formed the team in 1998 with eight girls at Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 744 S. 17th St., has heard harbingers of hate who claim his program exploits participants and introduces them to a game that members of their race should not touch lest they subject other athletes to savagery. 


“It’s amazing how some people will look to twist positives into negatives,” he said as his players followed his “Find a partner, and pass” instruction.


The leader does not recruit, drawing his pupils from across the city and parts of Delaware County through word-of-mouth. Accustomed to having three teams, he will oversee two this year, with the mobile members’ ages ranging from 7 to 16. No matter the figures, Stewart motivates and easily gained respect from Martin. 


“We don’t look for publicity,” the coach said, adding that others look to sustain the novelty of his team’s racial identity more than he and the girls do.


They do seek acceptance, though, and are receiving that and renown through Martin, whose work consists of game action and interviews with the kickers and their kin. In June ’10, the Sundance Documentary Grant Fund endowed him with a $20,000 Work-In-Progress Grant to finish his piece, with an additional $25,000 coming through pledges through April.


“The girls who play soccer for the Anderson Monarchs are deeply committed to creating opportunities for themselves by being active change makers,” Martin said on www.imdb.com’s entry on “The Anderson Monarchs.” “They see soccer as a way not only to better their lives but as a powerful way to influence their communities.”


The girls derive their title from contralto Marian Anderson and baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson’s Negro league unit, the Kansas City Monarchs. Though they started at the South of South spot bearing the singer’s name, they have used Smith Playground for seven years. The land’s crowded occupancy means Stewart must often shorten the field for practices. He must also rid it of debris and issue warnings to avoid holes and mud, common nuisances by September, the month they begin to best teams in the Philadelphia Area Girls Soccer League. Friday’s rain confounded the shoddy field, making more apparent the severity of Martin’s task.


“It’s a film about urban issues like equality and equity,” Stewart said right after the downpour disbanded the planned two-hour session 75 minutes early.


In January ’10, he formed the Soccer Sisters United Inc., which, with no independent funding, depends on donations, grants and sponsorships. Players participate in fundraisers each year to attempt to cover equipment, field maintenance, league, tournament, transportation and uniform expenses. They have often declined many invitations to compete, including two to West Africa, because of exhausted funds, according to their website.


Fate permitted a trip to Orlando, Fla., that same month for the Kick It 3V3 Soccer World Championship. Martin accompanied them as they finished ninth and gathered more examples of their excellence. Owners of many championships, including two indoor crowns this year, they have become known as giant slayers who eagerly take on and defeat those whom their detractors feel should run the game, namely, teams in affluent areas.


“We’re a very good team,” Stewart modestly said of their accolades. “The goal is to get these girls to the point where they could play in college.” 


India Barnes wants to exceed that purpose. The 9-year-old resident of the 1400 block of South 15th Street yearns to have a professional career.


“I like the challenge of playing for this team,” the five-year veteran and fourth-grader-to-be at Holy Spirit School, 1845 Hartranft St., said.


That challenge did not add any pressure to her involvement in the documentary, as she coolly coasted across the playing surfaces. 


“I am proud of my role on this team and was happy to represent South Philly in the movie,” she said.


“Everything was natural but I thought I would trip,” 12-year-old Courtney Harold, another fifth-year player, said of the shoots.


A seventh-grader-to-be at St. Gabriel School, 2917 Dickinson St., the resident of the 2600 block of Sears Street kept her balance and is eager to see the final product. Stewart has equal anticipation. He said Martin last captured game footage in September and he planned to meet more families this summer.


“It may be the documentary that never ends,” he said.


The original plan called for release before the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which concluded July 17. Martin deferred to Stewart on questions about the film, so the coach said his friend is aiming to circulate his creation at fall film festivals. Published reports have Martin receiving interest from Hollywood and desiring full distribution next year.


“We will use the film as a wedge for funding,” Stewart said of their need for an indoor facility for their suburban league games.


He expects an uptick in interest and registrations for the Monarchs, who attended Saturday’s Philadelphia Independence playoff semifinal in Chester. 


“The piece is a positive look at dedicated athletes,” he said. “Their wills are impressive.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com or ext. 124.

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