Thirty-nine-year-old University of Chicago men’s soccer head coach Julianne Sitch stands on the sideline at Donald J. Kerr Stadium in Salem, Virginia. It’s December 3, 2022, and her team has a 2-0 lead against the Williams College Ephs in the NCAA Division III national championship game; her team also hasn’t lost a game all season. She waits for the clock to run out with a few seconds left to go.
When the clock runs out, Sitch walks onto the field, donning a bright smile. Waiting for her are Maroons freshman midfielder Alex Lee and junior defender Maina Ngobia carrying a water cooler filled with blue Powerade that they will pour over Sitch’s head out of pure excitement and joy. Drenched, the head coach and Lee run side by side to celebrate with the rest of the team. The Maroons have won their first national title in their program’s history; this team is also the fifth in school history in any sport to win a championship.
An emotional and historical moment like that gives Sitch a reason to believe that all the years in which she has developed her knowledge as a former player and current head coach is worth it. I talked with Julianne over the phone to learn her story and journey through the game of soccer.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. And congratulations on this incredible victory. I want to start this interview off by asking you about your childhood. What was it like and how were you first introduced to the game of soccer?
Yeah, I started playing soccer when I was five or six. I was actually the only female on the all-boys team. There weren’t opportunities for me to play on the girls’ teams until I was seven or eight years old. So, the first couple of years, I was playing with guys. And I just kind of grew up playing soccer, that’s how I fell in love with it. I just loved being competitive with it. I was really fortunate to be around a lot of good people. And my dad was a very encouraging aspect of my life. So, it was fun playing soccer with him in the backyard. That’s just kind of how I grew up. And it took off from there in my career.
Cool, where were you born and raised?
I was born in Oswego, Illinois, and was raised there. And I went to DePaul. And then traveled all around playing professionally. And I ended my career in Chicago as well.
You say that your dad got you involved with soccer. How much of an influence has your family been as a part of your journey and career?
My parents played a huge role in my life. I’m just extremely fortunate to have unbelievable parents who have supported and encouraged me to go after my dreams. And provided opportunities for me to do so. I lost both of my parents to cancer, unfortunately. It hasn’t been easy; it has been extremely hard because they have been the biggest influence. To not have my dad by my side this past season was extremely hard. They inspire me every single day to savor the moment, don’t take anything for granted, and just be extremely grateful for the opportunities that we have. And that‘s something that they have always instilled in me. And that’s something that I hope to continue to always be or help other people see.
When did you first realize that you had a shot to play at a collegiate and professional level?
At the age of six, I told my dad that I want to be a professional soccer player. So, that was my dream from a very young age. And once I got into high school, I kinda stopped playing all of the other sports, and just focused on soccer. Because I wanted that to be a main focus to go after my dream. I was probably around high-school age when I knew that playing college soccer was definitely going to be a reality. But I would say they were goals and dreams. I don’t know if I remember that moment of “You know this can happen.”
The leagues were folding throughout my career. When I was in high school and college, the first women’s pro league folded. So, the opportunity to play in the States wasn’t around. I had to go overseas and play abroad for my first year of playing professionally. So, I would just say that it was more so always my dream, and I don’t think I believed it until it became a reality, until I was actually on a plane heading to Sweden to fulfill my first dream of playing professionally.
What was it like playing as a kid with boys?
Yeah, I loved it. It was super-competitive and I grew up training with guys all along.
When you were playing with the boys, did they take notice and were they like “Wow, she can play” just like that?
(Laughs) I don’t know if it was that easy, but I would say that I got to train with really good-quality guys. And guys that just worked hard and made me part of the training as if I was one of their teammates. So I thought that was really awesome in the sense of how that favor really helped us get better as much as me pushing them to get better. It was really great.
What was your experience playing at the collegiate level like?
It was something like a surreal moment because it has been a dream to play collegiate soccer. So, I love it. I had a really great experience and time at DePaul University. I got to play with an unbelievable group of women. We set new school records; we won a conference tournament for the first time in program history. We went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. So, that was really special to be a part of something like that. And at the time, women’s sports were up-and-coming and the program was very new. So, to be a part of something and to be a part of history is something that I am very proud of with my teammates.
What was your major?
I double-majored in fitness management and physical education.
What year did you graduate?
Afterwards, you played professional soccer. Do you want to take me to those moments when you were playing at the professional level? And what was it like for you? I know it was like a dream, but were there some challenges? Were there some achievements?
Yeah, I mean there’s definitely both. A lot of achievements and a lot of challenges. I actually played through two professional leagues. Damallsvenskan [in Sweden] was the first one that had folded before I had gotten out of college to play in it. I played in WPS [Women’s Professional Soccer] and then that folded. And then I came back and played in the NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League]. So I would say the challenges were fighting to survive. I got paid $5,000 to play for eight months. You can’t really live off of that! (laughs) But we did it because we absolutely loved it. It was a dream to do that. So, it didn’t really matter about the money that we were making. But that was a huge challenge. I had to work three or four other jobs while also trying to play professionally, stay fit, and be ready for things. That was a challenge in itself. I tore my ACL and meniscus at the end of my season after I got traded back to Chicago. And not only did that happen and happen to be rehabbing through the off-season, the Chicago Red Stars folded. So, I was contractless coming off a major injury, and teamless because the team had folded. And so, just to try to work back through that barrier, I was really fortunate enough that another team picked me up. But I still had to go into preseason late to try to fight back to make the roster. That was a really pivotal moment in my life, of just that pure resilience that I had to get through that injury and make the roster while being injured. That was definitely a big challenge to overcome. But then you think about the opportunities that opened a lot of doors for me in coaching. I’m very fortunate and happy for those. And traveling abroad like playing in Sweden and Australia was absolutely phenomenal. I met some of my best friends that I will know for the rest of my life which was really cool. So, even though you have those highlights, you have a lot of moments and things that you will be able to take with you forever.
Absolutely. You mention that you worked four jobs while playing professionally. What were those jobs?
I was a personal trainer and then coached soccer as well. I would get up and have clients from six to nine. And then, I would drive to training, do training, film and weights. Get back in the car and go coach soccer, do individual and small group training, until almost nine o’clock at night. Get home and repeat that all over again. It’s toxic. When you’re a professional athlete, you want to make sure that you are recovering and taking care of your body, so you can be at the best of your ability to be able to perform. When you’re on your feet from six in the morning until nine o’clock at night trying to make ends meet to play out and play professionally, that was a challenge. I had to sacrifice a lot of other things in my life to make that dream a reality. I do not say that in a negative way at all. I’m very fortunate for the opportunity to play.
How long have you played professional soccer?
What was the moment when you told yourself, “You know what? I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
I would say that toward the end of my career, I started to have that thought. I was missing out on a lot of other things. Like I said, I sacrificed a lot to play in a positive way. Missed out on other important life things like my friends having their kids and stuff like that. I wasn’t around because I was traveling so much or playing that I just started to search for something a little bit different in my life. Throughout the last couple of years of having that thought, I really enjoyed coaching and working with small groups. It felt like I wanted to get into that. I started to feel differently about playing. And it still brought joy, but it was different.
So how old were you when you retired?
Oh, gosh, thirty-one, I think?
What led you into coaching?
I absolutely love to work with athletes. I wanted to be a P.E. major and do fitness management. I always enjoy working with people; I enjoy helping them go after their goals and accomplishing that stuff. I just love helping people be the best that they can on and off the field. I hope to be an inspiration to people to continue to work and go after their dreams. For myself, it was throughout that and being able to do the personal training and the small group sessions and coaching, I just absolutely loved it. And I just found that love to really help push athletes to be at their best. So, that’s kind of when it started; even though I always had a passion to help people. But it was definitely throughout my playing career when I was starting to coach and stuff that I was like, “I really want to do this.”
Was your first coaching experience at the University of Chicago?
I was doing club before the University of Chicago. And then, my first collegiate experience was coaching on the women’s side of UChicago.
And you were the assistant coach?
And how long was that for? Two years?
I was there for three years. And then I left. And then I came back again as a volunteer. I left again to go to the Red Stars. And then came back to be on the men’s side.
Can you take me back to when you actually got the assistant coaching position at U of C with the women’s team? And how did that transpire into you becoming a head coach for the men’s team?
I saw that the [assistant coaching] job was open at UChicago. I had applied, but didn’t really know much about University of Chicago. I didn’t know much about [NCAA] Division III. I was fortunate enough to get an interview. I actually didn’t get it [the job]. The coach that I had as a professional got it instead. And unfortunately, she needed to relocate six months after that. And then Amy Reifert called me back in for another interview and I took the job. I knew what it was about, I knew the type of culture. I knew the guys that they had. So, it was just kind of a place that I wanted to be a part of again. And when the [head coaching] job had opened, I had some conversations about it, I went to an interview.
When you first got the position, I know it was amazing for you. But what were the other things that were going through your head? How did you feel about that? Were you nervous?
Yeah, I didn’t have any hesitations or wondering how or what it was going to be. I worked with guys before. I coached kids, individuals and small groups; all that stuff. So, for me, it’s just about coaching athletes. I didn’t have that hesitation of wondering what it would be like. I knew a lot about what the program stood for and who they were in the culture that they were creating. And I just wanted to be a part of that.
And then going into the season, when your team was on a ten- or eleven-game winning streak, did you have the thought “Okay, maybe we have a shot of taking this all the way?”
Yeah, I think the team was really talented. They were in the final four the previous year; lost in the semifinal. And I knew this team had a lot of talent. I knew that they were special; I knew that they could do something. And there was a point throughout the  season where we had to overcome being down a goal. I knew that it was going to take something really special to knock this team off of winning. I mean, just the cohesiveness and the culture. And the value. The way that the team is so respectful toward each other and holding each other accountable to these high standards. I knew it was going to take something so special to break that group up. They had every piece to winning a national championship.
As far as coaching, how would you personally describe yourself as a coach?
I hope that I’m positive, passionate and encouraging (laughs). And trying to get the best out of my athletes. I try to create an environment that’s not filled with fear. I want my athletes to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. We should be learning from our mistakes. I want to create a positive environment where they feel like they can be themselves. And be able to bring the best versions of themselves on the field.
As far as the atmosphere with those guys, they pretty much felt that you were part of it. They felt a good connection with you basically, right? Holding and keeping them together as a unit?
Yeah, I agree. I felt really fortunate that I knew that I was going to be the first female coach that a lot of them have had, right? And the way that they embraced me and brought me into their brotherhood is something that I will always be grateful for. And we’re a special group. I think we continue to develop really good relationships amongst the staff and players. So, I definitely agree and it felt really cool and honored to be in the brotherhood.
So, going into the championship game against Williams College, your team was up 2-0. With a few seconds left to go, what was going through your mind?
Waiting for the clock to go down (laughs), like time couldn’t go any slower. Yeah, I think it was just a moment of “Is this really going to happen?” And just feeling overjoyed for the guys. I’ve been really fortunate where I have won championships before and nothing trumps that feeling of being with your team, winning, and doing that together. Just knowing what they were going to celebrate for and how they were feeling made me so happy for them that they were going to experience that.
Once you won, did you know how monumental and historical this was going to be not only for you, but for the team?
No, I never knew that it was going to have this impact. I never knew how much it was going to impact me. Man, it’s been how many months now that I can sit in silence and think about it. And it just brings tears to my eyes. I hope it opens the doors for everyone. Opens the doors for more women who want to go after their goals and dreams. Or boys who want to go after their goals and dreams. And just not let anything stand in your way. It’s pretty surreal. I’m extremely humbled by it. I never would’ve imagined this. I never would’ve imagined the impact that it made. So, I really hope it continues to inspire women to be in leadership roles. They don’t have to coach men, they can coach women and really just do what you want to do. And follow your dreams.
Did you ever think you were going to win your first national championship in your first season as a head coach?
No. (laughs) No.
Congratulations on getting the Denver University (women’s head) coaching position. What are you looking forward to in this new position? How were you able to get that position?
Yeah, I mean, I was not actively looking to leave Chicago. I love UChicago and it’s where my coaching career started for me. I’m really fortunate to have had that time and the opportunity presented itself at the job here in Denver. Colorado has been a dream place for my wife and I to live. That’s the place we want to go. That’s been our plan; that’s been our goal. And so the opportunity came about. The program is successful; they have been very good. That’s how that job worked and here I am. For me, I just want to be happy and continue to work with athletes. And pushing them to be at their best.