Women’s soccer program stays true to its traditions


Javier Hernandez

Chico State Women’s Soccer team before a game.

When looking at the history of the women’s soccer program at Chico State, you don’t have to go back too far. Through 38 years, there have been two coaches in the program’s history and when the Wildcats play at home, you can find both at the stadium during every game. Coach Kim Sutton on the sidelines and former coach Bob Russ in the end zone cheering on the team. 

Before becoming a collegiate program in 1983, the women’s soccer program was a club team at Chico State who played against teams such as Cal Berkeley and Stanford before they eventually moved up. 

Bob Russ was the former men’s soccer assistant and head coach for six years before he made the move to lead the women’s team. He was a pioneer in bringing popularity to the sport for women. 

Russ coached the women’s soccer team for 18 years until he retired in 2001. 

When he was nearing the end of his career as a head coach, Russ said he was asked to be involved to search for his successor by the athletic committee. 

“I said there were two things that had to happen, one is, it had to be a woman,” Russ said. “I believe women should be coached by women. Secondly it had to be a coach I respected, and there was only one coach I dreaded playing against and it was Kim Sutton at Humboldt State.” 

Russ and Sutton’s mutual respect developed immensely throughout Sutton’s career. Earlier this year, Sutton said that she promised Russ she would keep his team’s conference championship plaque up on the wall until her team won. 

Keeping that promise, Sutton kept it up until her 2007 team won the California Collegiate Athletic Association. 

“I told him I’d keep it up there until we won a conference championship,” Sutton said jokingly, “so his came down and ours went up.”  

While Sutton has been in Chico for over 20 years as head coach, her journey to get here took her to a few different places. 

After suffering an ACL injury in her junior year of college from playing soccer at Sonoma State, where she also played basketball, she sought an activity to fill that time.

She said she began helping a friend coach a junior varsity basketball team because she was “bored.” From there she began being an assistant coach for basketball for 10 years at the high school and junior college level before going back to Sonoma State. 

On top of helping coach the Sonoma State basketball team, Sutton was offered a part time job as the head coach for the soccer team at Santa Rosa Junior College. 

After a few years, she went on to Humboldt State before ultimately ending up at Chico State, taking over a very successful program. 

After her 250th career win midway through the season, Russ was in attendance and had a lot to say about Sutton and the success she has achieved. 

“She’s not one that’s looking for accolades but she is going to get them because of her knowledge and approach being so unique,” Russ said. “She has a gift for teaching, and to be a great coach you have to be a great teacher.” 

Throughout the season, the women’s team has exemplified what the culture is and always has been; a team that’s best qualities are off the field. 

“My goal and philosophy with them is to love and care about them and teach them about life,” Sutton said, “their character and effort are the kind of people we want.” 

Sutton said soccer is what the team does together but what really matters is what happens outside the game. However, this has been the mentality long before Sutton became a Wildcat. 

Alumni Kendra Wright and Sarah Emigh spoke on this approach from both coaches. Wright played from 1997 to 2001 under Bob Russ and Emigh wrapped up her college career this last fall under Kim Sutton. 

“Bob is an outdoorsman, he concentrated on our relationships off of the soccer field,” Wright said. “A lot of what we did was not on the field, we did things that had nothing to do with soccer.” 

The team did things such as running through the mountains, hills, downtown, going to lakes, basically anything outdoors Wright said. 

“That’s where you get that buy in of, it isn’t how good I am at soccer it is about how much I respect the coach and the team, Bob created that experience for us,” Wright said.

The love for their respective coaches even after they have been away from the sport is the same between Wright and Emigh. 

While Emigh just played her final season and is not too far removed from the program, she says coach Sutton and herself created a friendship that will carry on long after she graduates. A friendship that stems from the trust she had for her captain. 

“She would just call me for an opinion on if we should take a bus or fly when we went on a road trip,” Emigh said. “We built a relationship outside of soccer because of so many other things going on like COVID and my schooling having me miss so many things.” 

While Emigh never played under Russ she has become a friend of his, she has her mom to thank for that. 

“My mom realized he was the old coach so she went up and introduced herself as number 13’s daughter,” Emigh said. 

After games Emigh would talk to him about soccer, and she said she knows what he has to say about the game is valuable because of how long he’s been around the sport. 

Russ’s admiration for her is high, saying “number 13 is the best player to come through this program.” 

This compliment makes Emigh reluctant to step away from soccer, but she is ultimately excited for her career as a nurse. 

“Just thinking about that can make me cry,” Emigh said. “He’s always had nice things to say about me and I have written those down to cherish forever.” 

The women’s soccer team has always been a successful program, partly due to the skill level of the players, but more importantly to the traditions that have stuck around since the start. 

“We had an event at Madison Bear Garden about three years ago and she was passing out trophies that were started when I was there and even before me,” Wright said. “She kept the historical traditions that mean so much to people in the infancy of the program, I mean who else does that?” 

Wright said it is easy for a coach to come in and change everything, but it is nice to see that Sutton hasn’t lost sight of where the program started.

Players now are honoring these traditions and hope to see them continue even after they are gone. 

“It’s so heartwarming because we grow to love these traditions, as an alumni, current player or a recruit it is an important thing to have to connect with the players that played with Bob,” Emigh said. “I know I’ll come back and ask to see if they still do those things.” 

Keeping time honored traditions, having two coaches in a nearly 40 year old program, the consistent support of alumni and having the former coach watch every home game as the program he created thrives is only best described as unique, but effective. 

Mason Tovani can be reached at orionmanagingeditor.com or @masonmtovani on Twitter.