The American University Women’s Soccer team is in the midst of a resurgence, and it is thanks in large part to the culture change brought about by head coach Marsha Harper. Harper is in her third year as head coach of the Lady Eagles soccer team, and the team’s improvement is more evident with each passing year. The proof is in the pudding, as the team went from winless in her first year as head coach to three wins and eighth in their conference this past season.
“I took over a last place team, and I knew that coming in. But I believe half of the battle is injecting belief into the team and into people,” Harper said, regarding the team’s improvement. “I know that I am a winner; I have fought hard to be one.”
Anyone familiar with Coach Harper’s background knows that she comes with high expectations. Born and raised in Denver, Colorado; Harper excelled in youth soccer, so much so that she earned a spot playing D1 soccer at the University of South Florida (USF). While at USF, Harper would play six seasons, earn her master's degree in exercise science, and serve as the team’s captain. Through all her accomplishments, Harper never forgot her main motivation.
“My mom…she is definitely my inspiration for everything. [She] is a big reason why I do a lot of the things I do.”
That inspiration and her passion for the game drove Harper to pursue coaching after graduating from USF. She began coaching as a grad assistant and worked in various coaching roles around the country before finally landing at American University, her first head coaching job.
“The connection that I felt with the people was so real and undeniable,” Harper said about what drew her to American. “From the administration and the other coaches and colleagues I’d be working with…I left that interview thinking ‘man if they would offer me I’d definitely take it.’”
Harper continues to work to elevate the culture of the American women’s soccer program. Sitting in a room with Coach Harper, she exudes pure confidence, and her goal while at American is to instill that same confidence in her players.
“You talk about injecting confidence into people. If a player has a bad touch, has a bad day, has a bad week, do you catch before it happens and it’s a year, or are you able to notice it and try and catch it a little bit sooner, which is super hard because now you’re managing 28 plus people…it’s no easy task, but the coaches that do that are successful.”
Rallying a formerly last place team and turning them into a contender certainly is a tall task, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Coach Harper. Her role as the head coach of a D1 soccer team already defies all odds. Harper is one of only five Black female Division I coaches in the entire country for her sport, which consists of over 100 teams. Harper spoke about what that distinction means to her, as a coach and as a woman of color.
“There’s a lot of honor for sure in that, but there’s also a lot of weight…I absolutely feel like I am standing on the shoulders of the people that have come before me.”
However, it's not all pressure to Coach Harper, who acknowledges the impact her role has on younger women of color with pride.
“I know that there are little, baby Marsha’s that are watching, and maybe they don't even necessarily know that they’d like to be a coach at one point in their future. To have them see someone that looks like them in me, in the position that I’m in, is in the back of my mind at all times.”
She has only been at American a short time, but Coach Harper’s impact on her team and the people around her is palpable within the American University athletic department. Although success at the Division I level is never guaranteed, one thing is certain; there is much to look forward to in the American University women’s soccer program’s future with Marsha Harper at the helm.