This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. on July 2.
To the thousands of Robinson graduates over the last 40 years, the massive school in Fairfax might seem as generic as they come. Typical American high school experience, most people must think of their time there. But for a girl from Portsmouth, England in 1981, walking into the school building was like having an all-access pass on a movie set.
“I watched ‘Grease’ when I was a kid, and it was like going into Rydell High,” says Jill Ellis, 47, a 1984 graduate who starred on the Rams’ soccer team and was recently introduced as the coach of the U.S. women’s team. “You had the jocks, you had the nerds, you had the shy kids. You could hang out with your buddies by your locker. It was a total melting pot. It was great.”
As a member of the field hockey and soccer teams, Ellis spent a lot of time at school practicing, playing games and waiting for rides home after practice. Perhaps her worst memory is from the day she learned there was such a thing as a ‘pop’ quiz.
“A pop quiz? That just didn’t seem fair,” she said. “It took me a lot of time to adjust to how they teach. It was a lot of testing. … It was a lot of different experiences [all at once].”
Everything required an adjustment – she came from a country where kids wore uniforms to school, but in Fairfax, the de-facto school uniform was purchased at The Gap. The bus picked her up in Clifton and took her to school, and burgers were served with little American flags. “Sport was an environment where I felt comfortable,” she said. But even the sport that would become a career required some fine-tuning. While Ellis had the fundamentals of England’s national game down pat -- based upon hours and hours of kicking the ball around with her brother and father, John, who moved his family to Northern Virginia in order to coach with the Annandale Boys’ Club and start his own soccer training academy -- she had never played a competitive game before the 1983 school season began. ‘Football’ just wasn’t something girls played in England.
“My mom was horrified when I told her I was going out for the school football team,” she said. “But I remember my first high school game, and some girl flattened me, took me down, and my mom is there yelling at the ref. She made the transition to being a big fan so quickly. I loved the competition, but I really had no idea where I fell out because I hadn’t ever competed against girls.”
Jim Rike, who now has over 30 years of experience coaching the Robinson girls’ soccer team, was at the nascent stage of his coaching career when Ellis came out for the team that year.
“When she got here, she was already ahead of the curve,” said Rike, whose team, led by Ellis and Megan McCarthy, now a math teacher at Centreville High School, won the state championship the following season. “She had moves that might have been merely competent in Europe, but no one had seen here.”
McCarthy, Ellis and other local star players, including Lake Braddock’s Julie Shackford (now the women’s soccer coach at Princeton) combined to form a formidable club team, the Braddock Road Bluebelles, who won the national championship in the summer of 1984.
“Even today,” Rike said, “those kids would stand out. That’s the kind of players they were. That ’84 team is still the benchmark I compare a lot of my teams to.”
McCarthy, Ellis and Shackford each went on to star at William and Mary, and after an All-American career, McCarthy became a member of the U.S. national team that won the Women’s World Cup in 1991.
“I’m excited for her. I know she’s up to the challenge. She’s dreamed of this, and for her to reach that goal, it’s thrilling to see her get there,” said McCarthy of her reaction to the news of Ellis’ new job. “Jillian is a great people person, and she’s going to manage the players very well. When you’re at that level, that’s what you need to do well. You can’t just [know] the sport well, you have to understand people.”
In conversation it’s easy to recognize those who knew Ellis as a teenager. They call her ‘Jillian.’ Since her English accent was so strong, when she introduced herself as ‘Jill,’ most people heard ‘Jewel.’ So she decided the more formal version of her name would be easier to understand. After living in the U.S. for over 30 years, her accent has faded a bit, but it’s still there when she says words like ‘doctor,’ hospital’ and ‘sport.’
After graduating from William and Mary, Ellis wasn’t quite sure she wanted to continue in soccer, the family business, but eventually, she became a college head coach, working first at the University of Illinois and then at UCLA, where she stayed for 12 years, during which time the Bruins made eight NCAA Final Four appearances. She worked with U.S. Soccer in various ways for years, including on the coaching staff of the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams. She even filled in as the national team coach on more than one occasion, and on May 16, she was named the team’s eighth head coach. Ellis won her debut on June 14 1-0 over France.
So how does it feel to be coach?
“I immediately got hired and had to start preparing for France, so I haven’t had much time to look beyond that,” said Ellis, whose team fought for a comeback 2-2 tie in the second game of the French series. “But it’s been great. The players have been good. I’m really happy, and really proud of having this opportunity.”
And the players seem thrilled to have Ellis, too.
“It’s been amazing and refreshing in all aspects” said national team veteran Ali Krieger of Dumfries. “At camp I felt like it was back to our family again. She’s a perfect coach, leader and person for the job. There aren’t many coaches who give you that extra motivation, when you look to the sidelines during a game, to want to play your best and win, not only for yourself, but for her. … That’s really rare.”
Most of the players have a relationship with Ellis going back to their days playing on the Under-21 national team. “She’s seen us grow up,” said Krieger, who lives in Northern Virginia while playing for the Germantown, Md.-based Washington Spirit professional team. “It’s so nice she knows where we come from and how hard we’ve worked.” Krieger said she was relieved to hear Ellis had been chosen for the job.
While Ellis is happy to be remembered by old Robinson classmates as the girl with the fast feet, good moves, and game-winning goals against rival Lake Braddock, she’d rather cement her legacy as a World Cup and Olympic gold medal-winning coach. With just one year to go before the next Women’s World Cup in Canada and only two years before the Rio Olympics, she has a massive amount of work ahead and little time to bask in nostalgia.
“When you take the job of the U.S. National Team, the expectation is to win gold. And I know that. For me, that’s the goal,” Ellis said. “We’re going to be building this team. We have qualifiers in October, and the World Cup next June. That’s my laser focus. What’s around the corner will come. But for right now, I’m just focusing on this team and the next 10-12 months.”
The original version of this story contained an incorrect date.