By Athletic Communications Assistant Alex McKeon
BEREA, Ohio – Over the past forty years, women have begun breaking barriers in the predominantly male dominated sport of football. Many of the athletes who have played their way into the sport have experience as accomplished athletes in a different discipline. Nevertheless, it is rare to find two athletes who have become trailblazers, before joining each other on the same college team in a different sport. At Baldwin Wallace University, that is the case on the women’s soccer team.
Paige Ackerman and Taylor Tomlinson, two freshmen in their first year on the women’s soccer team, will continue their brilliant athletic careers under the direction of Head Coach Jim Wojtkun at BW. However, what they may be most known for is their high school football careers.
Ackerman had a unique multi-sport career in high school that saw her compete for two separate schools. Ackerman played for St. Mary Central Catholic (Sandusky, Ohio), her actual high school, in football as a kicker and competed for nearby Perkins High School on the soccer team, due to St. Mary’s not having a team. For Ackerman, the idea of joining the football team had always had potential.
“I’ve always played soccer and then I actually moved to Ohio in 2018,” said Ackerman. “I lived in California, then I moved to Ohio and we had powderpuff for our high school my junior year and I kicked a field goal. I was actually in rehab for my right ACL at the time, so I didn’t play high school soccer my junior year. The football coaches were like ‘hey, come out for your senior year and kick for us’ and I was like ‘that’s a very good idea’. I don’t think they thought I was fully serious, but I was like ok! Then I came out the first day of lifting and it went on from there.”
Ackerman would go on to letter in football her senior year and make history as the first female football player in school history. Despite the notoriety that came with making history, Ackerman took joy in the other things that came along with the significance.
“I really liked it because it allowed girls to look up to me,” said Ackerman. “We host a football camp every year for our school and we had a full group of a dozen girls that decided to go and show up because they saw me play and wanted to be like me. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, they were all adorable and I’d show up to school and I got so many goodies and bracelets and it was the coolest thing and felt like it was amazing.”
For Ackerman’s new teammate Taylor Tomlinson, there were also a number of really positive takeaways from the experience.
“For me going into it, it wasn’t about popularity or publicity or anything behind it,” said Tomlinson. “I wasn’t doing it for any sort of exposure. I was doing it because I knew I would be good at it and I knew that it would give me the experience of a lifetime that not many people get to have. Some of the younger girls on the soccer team who I am really good friends with, tried out this year and plan on trying out next year because their workload was too big. Paving that pathway is really inspiring to me and its heart-warming because people look up to me as a person who did something for them and set an example they can follow. One of the girls on my club soccer team actually got the kicking position at another high school and the number she ended up picking was my club jersey number so that’s pretty awesome.”
However, for both athletes, the road to playing football and making history also featured a great deal of pushback. For Tomlinson, the road to even joining the team at Youngstown Ursuline proved to be an uphill battle.
“At my high school, it was sort of a tradition for the freshman to participate in a bonding thing,” said Tomlinson. “For freshman year, what we did was a kickball tournament and the football coaches were actually administering the tournament. They were the referees, I guess. We were outside and being a soccer player, I obviously have a leg. At that point, the football program didn’t have a kicker, so they were asking me about it. For me, coming from a small middle school, freshman year was more of a learning experience for me. I wanted to see how classes would go and just feel everything out before I committed to anything too seriously. Then sophomore year came around and I was completely packed with AP classes and soccer and all the other schedules going around. I think it was also sophomore year that my mom lost her job, so it was hard to make commitments again. Then junior year, I was going to do it. I was fitted for a helmet and went to a couple of practices, but then one of the guys on the soccer team kind of started a bunch of bullying online over social media, which obviously disheartened me a lot and put me in a place where I didn’t feel confident enough in my own ability to go out and do something like that, especially with it being a predominantly male sport. Senior year, the coach from the previous year was fired and the guy graduated, so I didn’t have to deal with him and any of the other seniors that were on his side throwing bullets at me left and right and I didn’t have to deal with the coaching. I got the opportunity and I wasn’t going to do it because I was worried about bullying again. But, one of the soccer coaches who knows me and is a close family friend, he was friends with one of the football coaches and they went out to lunch one day and the football coach was talking about special teams and how they really didn’t have a kicker and the only kicker they had was the All-American, plays every single position and they don’t really want him to be the kicker. So, the soccer coach was like ‘I have an idea in mind, but it would obviously take some convincing’. They talked it through and were like ‘if she’s capable and wants to do it and give it a try then by all means have her come out and try it.”
Ackerman faced her own battles but approached any criticism she faced with a defiant and strong attitude.
“A lot of people questioned it and were like oh, you’re just the kicker and it doesn’t really count,” said Ackerman. “I’d be like, ok you can try it, like go for it. It’s a little harder than it looks, especially when you get to certain distances. When you have a bunch of big high school guys running at you while you’re trying to hit it between those posts, it’s definitely something.”
Despite the pushback, both women found their own path in the sport they felt passionate enough in to break barriers and earned the respect and support of coaches and their fellow teammates.
“I ended up going out and doing it and when I got to practice that day on the first day I was there, I sat in my car and the coach came up to my car and he said ‘listen, there’s going to be absolutely no issue,” said Tomlinson. “I’ve had three female kickers before in the past. If you get any sort of crap from the players, they will be suspended a game or have to do extra work at practice and there will be repercussions if you get any crap from them’. That kind of gave me that extra boost to get out of the car and go try it and from there it ended up working out.”
The support Tomlinson ultimately received following years of challenging attempts to enter the sport proved to be enough to make her the first female football player in school history and allow her to hit 13-of-16 extra points in her career.
“The day of our first scrimmage, it was 7 a.m., we had to drive an hour away and I was in the locker room, but since I am a female, I was separated from all the guys,” said Tomlinson. “So, I was just kind of sitting in a corner in my locker emotionless. Our equipment manager was talking to me and asking are you ok? I was like, ‘Not really I am terrified. I don’t want to mess up, I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I’ve come so far, and I don’t want to screw it up’. He gave me a hug and said everything is going to be ok and he walked away and before I knew it, all the seniors and some of the juniors on the football team came and I found myself in the middle of a group hug. I was bawling my eyes out, but they were like “listen, we’re your brothers and we aren’t going to let anything happen to you. If anybody says anything, we’ve got your back. No one is going to do anything to you or say anything to you that is going to make you feel like any less of a person. That was the final selling point for me. I knew I had a second family and it’s awesome that they were all brothers because they will always have your back.”
The two freshmen are now poised to carve another path in college athletics and their unique experiences will guide them as they look to aid the program reach new heights.