By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
In 2021, the Oakcrest girls soccer team went 7-10-1, made the state playoffs and won five of its last six games. Gabby Dittus was a sophomore that year who had 11 goals and 12 assists, both second on the team to Jayda Shehadi. She was looking forward to a big junior season this past summer.
But head coach Jason Hearn stepped down to take over at Rowan College of South Jersey-Cumberland, and with dwindling numbers the Falcons simply didn’t have enough players to field a team in 2022. Dittus was left in limbo. She really only had two choices — play for Oakcrest as the Falcons went down to a junior varsity schedule to try to build the program up, or transfer to district rival Absegami.
She didn’t want to do either of those things, so she and her father approached Oakcrest boys soccer coach Scott Meile about Gabby possibly joining his team.
“We started in the summer and we were confident and hoping that more girls would come out, but unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Dittus said. “They are running a really great JV program at the school, but that wasn’t the right fit for me this year. (The administration) gave me the option of going to play for Absegami, which is one of our district schools, but I’d have to transfer there and I didn’t really want to move my whole life over there. It was either that or just play for JV, so I asked if I could play on the boys team. I felt like the higher level would be good for me.
“At first, I talked to Mr. Meile, my dad and I, and we asked if it would be OK if I played for his team this year. He was like, ‘yeah, we’d love to have you.’ The team was very welcoming. They let me come on and were very supportive of me.”
Meile said his players weren’t sure what to make of their new teammate when summer workouts began. Could a high-level club soccer girl actually make an impact on a boys team that had aspirations of winning Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey Group 2 championships?
“I was really wondering how this was going to work out. I talked to her father about it, the boys were kind of like, ‘what’s going on? Why is this happening?’ I get what the girls coach is trying to do, she’s trying to build the team back up. They weren’t going to be able to have a varsity season, so we took Gabby over here, and it took me one or two games to realize what she’s good at and what we can get out of her. We saw a lot in practice. She serves a really nice ball — the assists she has are not fake assists, they are off her foot to someone’s head or foot and into the back of the goal,” Meile said. “What I’m looking at is what is that next level for Gabby? When she goes back to her club team and starts playing with the girls again, this is going to help her. And that’s the thing, you want all these kids to get something positive out of your program.”
Dittus certainly proved her worth. She finished with four assists and helped the Falcons to a 9-5-3 record that included berths in the CAL and sectional tournaments. At one point, the Falcons were 8-1-2 and one of the top teams in South Jersey.
“You can tell she has played a ton of high level soccer. At first, I think she was frustrated. We had the Buena tie earlier this year and I think she, and everyone else, walked off the field that day feeling frustrated. But I think Gabby, more or less as the season has gone on, has bought in. She’s like all the kids, she’s just getting better and better,” Meile said after a 2-0 win over Mainland in October. “In that first week I told the guys, ‘we’re all going to face adversity and challenges, how do you face those challenges? It’s not just about this game or this season, you have to persevere and overcome.’ I talked about that with Gabby. It’s not all going to be fun and easy, if it was everyone would do it. There’s commitment and sacrifice, and Gab is doing great. I’m just happy it has been rewarding for her and her family.”
“My first couple games it was a change, for sure, and it took some getting used to,” Dittus said. “The boys play a lot faster than the girls — they run faster and are stronger. But I felt that because I was a girl sometimes (opponents) were scared to pressure me.”
It took a while for Dittus to feel comfortable playing soccer on a boys team, Meile said. And he had to do some coaxing to get her to celebrate with her teammates after some early wins. She was feeling like an outsider early on, but it wasn’t long before she was just one of the guys.
“After one of the early games, we beat Cedar Creek and the kids were all celebrating on the field and Gab was just over with us coaches. I was like, ‘Gab, you can go over there with them.’ They were running onto the field going nuts and she was standing over there with us,” Meile said. “But now she’s a real active voice on the bench, always talking and always cheering on the kids where as in the beginning of the year she was kind of on her own. So that part is super cool. As a teacher, that’s what you want — that bonded feeling for your team.”
Her teammates said they came to respect Dittus because of her commitment. They learned to trust that she could be a player who could be counted on in tough games.
“We love having her. She has a couple assists — she’s assisted me a couple times and her passing is amazing. It’s good to have her on the team,” said star junior striker Jack O’Brien. “I kind of see her as one of the guys. She fits right in with us.”
Added senior striker Andrae Johnson, “I can definitely rely on Gabby. She gives us great crosses and her corner kicks are fantastic. She’s there for the left-foot crosses and a lot of teams aren’t ready for that, which gives us a big advantage. Like Jack said, we’re as one and we don’t see a difference with her. She’s a part of this team and everyone respects her.”
Dittus said it wasn’t easy to gain that respect. It didn’t happen overnight.
“On the girls team I always tried to work really hard, but on this team I had to work 100 percent harder for the boys to respect me. And I worked really hard for that respect. It took a while. They do a lot more intense fitness than the girls, so that was a big thing to get used to. The biggest challenge was, on the girls team I was like Jack O’Brien — I could dribble through anybody and score. (Playing against boys) it’s more like I’m the one who passes to the scorers. I can’t really dribble through or around anybody because I’m not as fast as them, so I’ve had to have a really good passing game,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of people taking Oakcrest as a joke because I’m on the team, but you can’t let that stuff get to you. I know when I come on the field (the opponents) are all like, ‘what is going on?’ But I think everyone on this team works really hard, and that something I respect about this team. Whether they have the soccer skills or not, they all work really hard and they’ve been great to me.”
Dittus said she doesn’t really know what the future holds as far as her high school career goes. If Oakcrest can field a girls team next year she’ll gladly suit up for them, but if not, maybe she’ll have one more season under coach Meile.
“I’ve thought about what it’s going to be like when I get back to my club season. It’s going to be different. I’ll have a lot more confidence, for sure,” Dittus said. “Getting to know the boys and hanging out with them has been fun, and the coaches are great. The whole experience has been great.”
“I’m interested to see what happens next year. If they send her back to the girls team, whatever the case is I know she’ll adjust. She’s been here every day, she works her tail off and does everything we ask. I know what kind of encouragement she needs. It’s a little different going from playing 40 minutes a game and being one of the stars to playing maybe 20 minutes a game,” Meile said. “I would hope this gives her confidence. Just to get through the fitness things we do and seeing her play — as the game goes on these kids forget she’s a girl and she’s getting knocked around. But she’s a physical player, too. I think this is going to be nothing but great for her in the future. This is going to be something she’ll be talking about forever. I was not expecting much, but we really have gotten a lot out of her.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
SOCCER: Oakcrest junior Gabby Dittus earned respect while playing on the boys team this fall
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN