Summer 2022

KENT DENVER SCHOOL

PERSPECTIVE

Issue 3
Summer 2022
Issue 2
Fall 2021
Issue 1
Winter 2020-21
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Marsha Harper '08 on Playing and Coaching D1 Soccer

In 2022, we celebrate 100 years of Kent Denver School history, including a legacy of athletic achievement dating back to the school’s earliest days. Even in 1922, when sports opportunities were limited for young women, the Kent School for Girls required all its students to participate in one or more sports, hosting competitions for its own students and other young women from all over the state.

2022 also marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark federal legislation that led to a massive expansion of and investment in women’s sports at all levels and opened up college athletic opportunities to Kent Denver’s male and female graduates. 

One of the athletes who embraced sports at the high school and college level is Marsha Harper ’08. She played for Kent Denver’s two-time state championship-winning girls’ soccer team before heading to the Division I level at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida. When her playing career ended in 2014, she made the transition to coaching and is now the Head Coach for women’s soccer at American University (AU), one of the few female head coaches at the D1 level.

In honor of International Women’s Day in March, we talked with Marsha about her path from Kent Denver to American University, her coaching style and her commitment to helping athletes succeed on and off the field.  

Kent Denver: Tell me about what you were like in high school. What activities were you involved in at Kent Denver? What would your teachers and classmates remember about you?
 
Harper: I think I would be remembered for being outspoken! 
 
I was a lifer, so I started in 6th grade and stayed all the way to 12th grade. I played soccer, volleyball and basketball for the school in Middle School, and then in 9th grade, I was getting recruited for soccer, so I chose to [focus on that] in high school. 
 
Outside of soccer, I loved my Metals class with Ms. NeJame. She made it really fun. Ms. DJ [Loni DesJardin] for English class and Scobes [Priscilla Scobie] really stand out in my memory too!

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Kent Denver: Were there any experiences you had at Kent Denver that influenced your life after graduation?
 
Harper: Generally, I had a lot of fun. Initially, I came from public school, so the Kent Denver environment was new to me. There was no place to hide. You may not think that’s great as a student, but you realize later what benefit that has for you.
 
One of the things I think Kent Denver does really well is they encourage everyone to be active. Every semester, you have to do something. We talk a lot with our AU recruits about being well-rounded, and I think setting that precedent early absolutely helped me.
 
I feel like Kent Denver also did a really good job of pushing me beyond my comfort level so I could navigate the world in general. A big part about why I am a coach now is that I want to be able to help the women in my program, and even the student-athletes that attend AU and aren’t on my team, to better navigate the “real world.”
 
Kent Denver: When did you first start to think about making that pivot from playing to coaching? 
 
Harper: My interest in coaching really didn’t happen until my last game ever in college. Before that point, coaches told me that I should think about coaching, but I didn’t really take it seriously. 
 
In that last game, we lost in penalty kicks to our rival, the University of Central Florida. On the bus ride home, I realized this could be the last moment that I could have soccer in my life competitively. I started playing when I was 4 and finished playing at 24; soccer was always there. It has been the guiding light that allowed me to form my core values and how I operate in my everyday life. Was I ready to give that up? I literally had this internal conversation with myself on that bus ride back.
 
That’s when those voices from my coaches got a little louder. 
 
I had a semester left of grad school. While I was there, my coach pushed me into a Director of Operations position. I got to see the administrative side. As a player, you see your coaches on the field and what they do there, but you don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. I got to see that part of it. I realized it was something I would be interested in. After that and thanks to a lot of networking, I was able to step right into a job as a D1 assistant coach.

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Kent Denver: What was most surprising or challenging about your shift from athlete to coach?
 
Harper: Early on in my career, and this is natural if you’re a young coach, I was close in age to my players, but I had to be this authoritative figure. I had to figure out how to set those boundaries. I had to let the players know there’s a time and a place to be goofy, and there’s a setting in which you need to be serious. 
 
That’s something everyone, in every profession, has to figure out—how to form your own identity and the boundaries you want to set within that. 
 
Now in my shift from assistant to head coach, one of the big things I realized is that all eyes are on you. You have to be more intentional with your words and your actions. 
 
Kent Denver: How do you bring that intentionality to your coaching? 
 
Harper: I was raised with the expectation to “move with a purpose.” If you’re awake, be intentional with your movement, your actions. I like to give 100% and be very present in all settings.
 
I’m very detail-oriented as a coach. With my players, I talk a lot about championship details. When you’re running a sprint, put your toe behind the line, not on it. If someone tells you to “pass and move,” are you doing it at 100% or 20%? Those details matter.
 
I also like to coach with confidence. I try to push confidence into my players. In a game, you can hear me, but I’m not a screamer. I don’t put my players down. They’re already doing a lot of work as student-athletes—trying to juggle school, social life, all these things. You often need an extra dose of confidence. I try to do that while letting the students know what the standards are and helping them navigate that. 
 
As an adult, I’m also trying to learn when to dial back from that intensity. You can’t pour from an empty cup—I say that a lot with my players, and now I’m trying to practice what I preach.

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Kent Denver: What would you recommend for the next generation of Kent Denver student-athletes looking to be collegiate athletes? What are some of the top things you look for in student-athletes during the recruitment process? 

Harper: Regardless of the sport, master your craft athletically, but it’s also important to think about what type of person you are. 
 
When we’re at games, every coach sitting there has the ability to identify students with the top athletic talent, the top soccer IQ. What I look for—and this is a product of my own college coaches—are the intangibles.

What does the student look like when they come out of the game or are subbed out? Are they immediately walking to the bench and throwing down their water bottle? What does their body language look like? Or are they taking coaching points well and listening to that critical feedback? Are they high fiving their teammates and taking time to look their teammates in the eye? Those intangibles are what I’m looking for.

Nobody is perfect. We talk to our recruits about that. If a student doesn’t have all the tools, that’s okay too. It’s important for us to see how many tools a student has and what tools we can help give them on and off the field.

Kent Denver: International Women’s Day is coming up, and the theme this year is #BreakTheBias. What role do athletes broadly, and female athletes in particular, have in breaking biases on and off the field? How do you help give your players the tools to navigate that?
 
Harper: I am a big promoter of [breaking biases]. You can count on one hand how many black female head coaches there are at the D1 level. A big reason I am a coach is that I feel like I need to give back. I want to help pull other people and women along with me. I want to share success and see others have more success even than me. If you have put in work to be somewhere, it’s not enough to continue to put in work to remain in that space. You have to give back as well. 
 
I talk a lot about that with my team, especially last summer with the social injustice on display. It’s tough to live in that space and not say anything. I’m a big quote person. A lot of people say, “If you choose silence, sometimes that’s louder.” You have to speak up.
 
I’m very fortunate that the women in my program are some of the most passionate, driven, and unapologetic about speaking out. I lead from the back. I can do that because the women in my program are already pushing forward. My job is to push them if they start to go off track, but I’m pushing from behind. And in most instances, they don’t need a push. It’s so exciting! I’m encouraged by younger people and their willingness to speak about what they’re passionate about.
 
Looking forward, I think about the students at Kent Denver, and they’re going to be equally as intelligent, if not more so than my current students, in the movements they choose to support and how they do that. There’s a reason people say the future is bright. 
 

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