Cheerleading and dance just was not for Shellie Cotton Smith.
The soccer world should be so grateful.
Cotton Smith forged a reputation nationally, at Charleroi High School and at West Virginia Wesleyan College, as a soccer phenom. Her legendary skills and ability place her among the elite of the sport.
She is one of the greatest female athletes in Washington County and Western Pennsylvania history. She earned her place among the best female soccer players in Pennsylvania and in the former West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Cotton Smith said she was not exactly a natural when she started playing soccer at age 7.
“I wasn’t very good,” she explained. “I got a little bit better, and then when I was nine or 10-years-old a friend of my dad suggested I try out for Cup teams. I made both teams I tried out for. I played Cup until I was 18 and we were fortunate to win state every year.”
Cotton Smith was a member of the Olympic Development team for six years, from 12 to 17-years-old.
She led Charleroi to consecutive PIAA (1999 and 2000) and WPIAL championship appearances and scored 199 career goals.
The Cougars lost to Radnor in the 1999 state finals and to Villa Joseph Marie in 2000.
Her goal-scoring totals increased each season. She had 35 goals as a freshman, 40 as a sophomore, 55 as a junior and 69 as a senior.
The 69 goals remains a single-season record at Charleroi. In those four seasons, Charleroi’s overall record was 84-13-3 – that included a section record of 48-1-1.
“I’m glad I started in soccer,” Cotton Smith said. “I really loved it. My mom wanted me to be a cheerleader. I didn’t want that. She had me in dance. It was awful.”
Cotton Smith saved her moves and spirit for the soccer field.
“Shellie was a leader,” said Dan Haywood, Cotton Smith’s coach at Charleroi. “When we were doing drills or running, she was the leader of the pack. She led by example. She had that burning desire. She was not going to lose.
“Shellie worked over and beyond the coaching she received. She was just unbelievable.”
Cotton Smith shared her journey in Cup competition, Charleroi and West Virginia Wesleyan with her good friend Krystal Savarino, who carved an incredible career as a goalkeeper at each level.
The two, who also played basketball for the Cougars, remain friends today.
“Shellie was one of the most talented and skillful players I ever played with,” Savarino said. “We’re the best of friends, college roommates as freshmen and made recruiting trips together.
“I have great memories with her. It would have been nice to win one of those (state championship) games. Those were unbelievable experiences. It was challenging to get there both times. We found a way to win and to get there.
“Shellie was such a big part of that. She was so skilled. Her ball-handling skills, she could really take over the field.”
Cotton Smith was part of the second class of inductees into the Charleroi All-Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Included in that group was Darrell Harding (football), Dennis Laskey (soccer) and Robert James “Rab” Currie (football), among others.
She was also part of the 11th class of the Charleroi Girls Soccer Hall of Fame, which included Savarino, who had 37 career shutouts, and Haywood, the first coach in the Cougars’ history, who led the team for 19 years. Under Haywood’s tutelage, the Cougars played in two PIAA Class AA championship finals in 1999 and 2000, and three consecutive WPIAL championship games from 1998 through 2000. Peters Township is the only girls program from Washington County to win a WPIAL soccer championship.
“It was really fun,” Cotton Smith said. “We had a good team, a family.
“We were fortunate to win section titles and play multiple times in the WPIAL and state championship games. Once we started winning a lot, we were able to beat some Quad A-teams. As a senior, after we lost in the WPIAL, we just didn’t want to stop playing. We knew any loss would mean it was over. We just tried to keep fighting and winning so it wouldn’t end.”
Haywood said Cotton Smith and Savarino had a special chemistry and a tight hold on the team.
“When times were tough or tense, Shellie would stand up and connect with Krystal and they would tell the others ‘we can do this,’” Haywood said. They would high-five and off we would go. They were two incredible athletes.
“Shellie’s records speak for themselves. She was also surrounded by good talent, kids who worked really hard. They never stopped. Kids like Shellie, good person, good student, good daughter and phenomenal player, don’t come around very often.”
Cougar to Bobcat
The first time Anthony James saw the name Shellie Cotton was on a piece of paper handed to him by West Virginia Wesleyan baseball coach Randy Tenney.
That handoff changed the course of Bobcats women’s soccer.
“Her recruitment was the stuff of legends,” James said. “I’m walking down to the indoor facility and (Tenney) hands me this paper about this girl from Charleroi. Tenney said to me: ‘Seems like a decent player; Wheeling Jesuit is really recruiting her.’
“That not only caught my attention because she was a good player, but she was being recruited by my alma mater. When we went to watch her, we saw a special talent.”
Cotton Smith, who resides in Eighty Four with her husband Justin, and two daughters, Addyson, 9, and Mila, 7, changed the program.
She became the Bobcats’ career leader in goals (62), assists (35) and points (159). Savarino, who went with her, ranked second in school history in career shutouts (31), minutes played (5,603) and fourth in career goals against average (0.891) and saves (302).
The duo, along with another Charleroi standout, Jackie Deutcsh, led West Virginia Wesleyan to the 2003 WVIAC tournament and regular-season title en route to a 16-3-2 record. Deutsch is Cotton Smith’s cousin.
Cotton and Savarino helped the Bobcats win the 2001 WVIAC tournament and regular-season title. Cotton was the league’s Freshman of the Year in 2001 and Player of the Year in 2003. She shared the WVIAC’s Rookie of the Year award with Wheeling Jesuit’s Renea Moody.
“Shellie pretty much came in and advanced our program into a national program – a nationally recognized program,” said James. “We maintained being the No. 1 program in our conference and that enabled us to do well regionally.
“She was a major influence for our team, and she helped make the other players around her better. As a coach, that made my job easier.
“Her humility was unreal. Here’s the best player on the team working as if she was middle of the pack. She was so humble. I’ll never forget her.”
Cotton Smith has a mutual admiration for her college coach.
“We did a ton of running there, a ton,” she said. “I had good footwork and he is from Trinidad and he liked that style of play. It was hard work but a lot of fun. He treated us like his daughters.
“I tore my ACL my sophomore year playing at Washington & Jefferson. I rehabilitated for eight months. I wanted to get back to playing, being with my team and my coach. He left (for Youngstown State) before my senior season. I missed him. My last year wasn’t the best.”
James also coached at Pitt and operates his own soccer academy. He has seen many outstanding players and prospects. Cotton Smith ranks at the top, he said.
“To this day, in the women’s game, Shellie is one of – if not the most – skillful players I have ever seen,” James said. “What separated her was her comfort level. She was absolutely fantastic when it came to dribbling the ball and getting past the defender. She has one of the best second touches I’ve ever seen. She was always in control with the second touch and that made her a extremely unique talent.”
He gets no argument from Haywood.
“Shellie kept everything going,” Haywood said. “There wasn’t much she couldn’t do when she put her mind to it.”