COACH NAOMI RHODES’ EXAMPLE AND LEADERSHIP INSPIRES MCSA COMMUNITY
“One of the gifts of soccer is that it allows us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s not about me; it’s about we. It’s being a part of a shared vision working toward common goals,” says MCSA Co-founder and Coach Naomi Rhodes.
“With this realization comes a responsibility to be the best version of ourselves. As a player and coach, I know my team counts on me to be the best possible me. I expect the same of them. When everyone adopts this attitude, we develop trust and create space for creativity and bravery without the fear of making mistakes. It’s amazing to see what kids can do in this kind of environment. They not only play the game at a high level; they learn life skills and develop a sense of belonging they carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
These are lessons that the Mendocino County native learned while carving out a playing career at the Division 1 level, jumping into street soccer games in Spain with the boys, coaching collegiately, and working with youth. We’re all lucky to have people like Coach Rhodes sharing her knowledge with the kids in our club and with our coaching staff.
Born at Howard Hospital in Willits and graduating in 1994 from Ukiah High, Naomi grew up playing soccer locally, including Willits Youth Soccer, Ukiah Valley Youth Soccer, Ukiah Pumas, and Ukiah High School. She excelled at an early age and displayed the mental toughness and persistence that defines many kids growing up in our rural community.
After high school, she headed north to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene. She had no intention of playing soccer but quickly realized she missed the game, so she joined a club team. This team traveled throughout Oregon and Northern California to play against Division 2 and junior college teams in the region.
In the summers, she would return to Ukiah, where she would train with fellow Ukiah High Alum and Cal State Bakersfield standout Shane Huff. “I met Shane through his brother Josh in middle school,” she says. “Shane would put together workouts for those of us home for the summer. He shared what he was learning while he and Joe Munoz were off playing in and winning collegiate championships.”
As a junior at the U of O, she walked-on and tried out for the top team on campus, the Division 1 team. She made the team as a forward and competed in the Pac 10 (now the Pac 12) conference against teams like Stanford, UCLA, University of Washington, Cal, and others.
Naomi learned from coaches and players with high levels of experience and expertise. Her head coach, Bill Steffan, served as the goalie coach for the University of North Carolina’s legacy team, including US soccer legend Mia Hamm. Coach Steffan brought along assistant coach Keri Sanchez who played on the US National Team. Specifically, Coach Sanchez shared unique insights that proved to be an inspiration for Naomi as she grew as a player and a person.
True to her Mendo upbringing, Naomi earned her playing time through hard work, grit, and perseverance. “It was the experience of a lifetime. Other girls came into the program highly recruited and offered scholarships. They grew up with professional coaches. And here I was, a girl from Ukiah grinding it out and making a name for myself while earning my education both on and off the field.”
Her senior year, Naomi spent a semester in Seville, Spain, and was immersed in a whole new level of soccer culture. She attended a handful of professional games and watched teams like Real Betis and FC Seville.
“Passion for soccer in Europe is off the charts. I remember a riot in the street after one of the games because it ended in a draw,” she laughed. “However, it was amazing to experience soccer in a place where it’s a way of life. There were plenty of pick-up games all the time in neighborhood parks. I was one of the only girls to jump in and play with the boys!”
After graduating with a degree in psychology and Spanish, Naomi returned home to Ukiah in 2000, where she took a job with Fetzer Vineyards. She married in 2003 and had her daughter in 2005. While at Fetzer, she met a group of parents whose daughters played for the Ukiah Pumas, and her coaching career began. In 2006, Duncan McMartin offered her an assistant coach position with Mendocino College Women’s team.
She had her son in 2007 and was back to coaching at the college in 2009. In 2011, Shane returned home and, along with Joe Munoz, started the women’s program at Mendocino College, and she was asked to join the new coaching staff.
She explains, “I loved my coaches growing up here as a kid in Ukiah. The heart and passion of the volunteer parents that stood up is something I’ll never forget. And now, after experiences with successful division 1 coaches, US National Team players, and others, I was home learning even more from Shane and Joe. They have amazing playing and coaching backgrounds. What’s unique is they share the same heart for the community that my youth coaches had and are eager to pay-it-forward.”
In 2013, the trio decided to take their experience and knowledge to create opportunities for local kids. They had the idea to start a Grassroots program, and Mendocino County Soccer Academy was born.
The idea was to start small with the youngest of age groups and keep things in-house. “It was a magical time,” Naomi explains. “Kids were able to play and practice at the stadium field at the college, and the program quickly grew via word-of-mouth.”
Around that time, a couple of teams from the Ukiah Pumas were looking for a home. And even though it wasn’t a part of the plan, MCSA took on these U12 girls’ teams. In a case of “how the heck am I supposed to do it all,” Naomi entered a master’s program in counseling, was raising two young children, pursuing her career, and per a request from Coach Huff, took on the girls travel teams.
Since then, she’s finished her master’s degree and is a Dean/Counselor at Ukiah High School. In 2015, she left the college position to focus on efforts with MCSA, where she’s coached her daughter and various age groups.
And despite a one-season hiatus in 2018, when she had back surgery, she has been a fixture and one of the pillars that have allowed MCSA to prosper and grow. She currently coaches the U18 girls’ team.
“I’m absolutely floored by what these kids can do on the soccer field. It’s a joy to see our players thriving and having access to professionally trained and educated coaches. I’m extraordinarily proud of what our club has created,” she explains.
She goes on, “Sometimes I think our players don’t know how good they have it. For example, my son plays for Coach Munoz’s team. Joe is a former pro and national collegiate player of the year. Shane won multiple national championships, has several coaching licenses and has 20 years of experience at the D1, D2, Junior College, High School, and youth levels. Having access to that kind of expertise in rural Mendocino County is unique.”
“It’s not just Joe and Shane who have impressive resumes,” she explains. “We now have former players who have played at the collegiate level, earned their degrees, and are coming back as coaches and impacting these young players. We’ve initiated a volunteer coaching training program, and we emphasize coaching education for all of our staff. Educated and trained coaches are the key to creating amazing experiences for kids.”
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the years, especially after working so closely with Joe and Shane, is to be myself authentically,” she says. “I don’t need to be somebody that I’m not. I’m me. And this is the exact message I share with my team. My job is to help them be the best version of themselves.”
“The lessons I’ve learned on the field translate to real-life situations. I share this message with my girls. I tell my players that I love and support them, but I’m not going to allow them to be a slacker. Recently, we talked about what I mean when I say that a particular activity isn’t good enough. I asked the girls what’s the message they hear when I say that,” she says.
“The overwhelming response was when they hear that from me, they know they can do better. And that’s exactly right,” Naomi explains. “I know what these girls are capable of, and part of my job is to hold them accountable. I want to pull the very best out of each of them. I tell them I’m not going to sugarcoat things. I’m not doing you a favor by being easy on you.”
Kids indeed rise to the level of our expectations. Combine that with love, support, and consistent guidance, and that’s when the magic happens. Kids from our community can do amazing things.
Thank you, Coach Rhodes, for your vision, your passion, and your example. This next generation is moving into an uncertain future. Because of your efforts, they’re learning how to be creative, resilient, and, indeed, they’re a part of something bigger than themselves as an Eagles’ family.
Learn more about MCSA and our player development philosophy and pathways.