How the Joy of Playing the Game Continues to Propel the Nighthawks into its 25th Season
Published May 27, 2023
Written By: Katie Parker | WPSL Correspondent


Joy, not job.

That’s the San Francisco Nighthawks’ unofficial motto. It’s written on nearly every social post and it’s how the Hawks approach every training, every game, every season. Yes, the players and coaching staff want to win, but their main focus is for each individual to continue, or get back to, loving the game. Success will follow.

Nighthawks Starting XI vs FC Davis in 2023 Season Opener | Photo By: TJ Valenton

The Nighthawks have been a mainstay in the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) as one of two remaining founding teams since 1998. This May marks the start of the club and the league’s 25th season.  

A quarter century or two-and-a-half decades, no matter how you slice it, 25 seasons is a long time. Nighthawks players have come and gone while win and loss columns have ebbed and flowed. One unwavering constant though has been the dedication from General Manager and Hawks President, Jill Lounsbury, who first got involved with the club as a fan. As her love of the Hawks grew, so did her position. She became a Team Chaperone then a Manager and eventually President and General Manager.

“I loved the culture,” Lounsbury said. “It was a team organically grown out of the Bay Area and for many years we were the highest level you could play because the pro leagues folded several times.”

As the women’s soccer landscape around the country continued to evolve, so did the Nighthawks. In the early years of the WPSL, the Hawks’ competitors began bringing in top international players and standouts from the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT). The Nighthawks didn’t have the funding to match that strategy and the club felt they were missing out on great, impactful players who couldn’t afford to pay the team fees, so the decision was made to change things up.

Jill Loundsbury | Photo By: Noel Danseco

“We took the pay-to-play model out and made it our mission to make the team and training free to all the players,” Lounsbury said. “Since we have gone non-pay-to-play, we have gradually risen up the ranks…Taking the money out of the responsibility of the players has allowed us to open up the player pool - everyone is welcome.”

Freelance sports and action photographer Noel Danseco, began covering Nighthawks games around 2016. He served the U.S. Military as a Combat Cameraman in Iraq and Afghanistan. To help with the transition of coming home from the wars, Danseco started photographing sports. Today, he can be found, camera in hand, on the sidelines of USWNT and U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) matches, NWSL and Major League Soccer (MLS) games, and various local Bay Area matches. Danseco photographs other WPSL teams occasionally throughout the season as well, but considers the Nighthawks his home team.

“I admire the Nighthawks for their diversity and depth of talent of the players,” Danseco said. “One thing I admire about Jill is her knack for spotting talents early and helping them to develop by providing training and playing opportunities through the Nighthawks’ system.”

Lounsbury and the Nighthawks have ushered countless talented players from high school, through college and many on to professional playing careers. Four former Hawks players are expected to take part in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Olivia Sekany, former Nighthawks player and current Racing Louisville FC Goalkeeper in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) was 16 years old when she first put on a Hawks jersey.

“Jill is nothing short of a legend,” Sekany said. “Her love for the game and dedication to the Hawks is truly inspiring to everyone who knows her. I am so grateful for the unwavering support she has shown me throughout my career, and for everything she has done for the Bay Area soccer community.”

Sekany played with the Nighthawks off and on during her college off-seasons and up until the winter of last year in preparation for her first professional season.  

Sekany vs MVLA Wolves, 2018 | Photo By: Noel Danseco

“The Hawks not only provided a place for me to improve my skills on the pitch, but also an environment which nurtured and helped to renew my love for the sport after a traumatic experience at my first collegiate soccer program,” Sekany said. “My positive experiences with Jill and the rest of the Nighthawks organization are part of the reason I was able to continue my soccer career and make it to where I am today.”

Lounsbury recognized this happening a lot, great players losing their love of the game and ultimately ending their playing career earlier than necessary.

“We pull them back and help them remember WHY they loved to play in the first place - thus our tagline #JoynotJob,” Lounsbury said.

Bucknell University alumna Liz Dwornik became a Nighthawk eight years ago. She explained how Lounsbury takes care of everything - from finding community sponsors to help cover league fees to making sure the team’s uniforms are clean and ready for games. 

“I can’t imagine the Nighthawks without Jill. She is such a huge part of our inclusive culture and really the glue that keeps it all together. It doesn’t matter what your soccer background is, she is always willing to give you a chance,” said Dwornik. “She really does it all and deserves so much credit for the success of our team.” 

That success bubbled up to a record high last season as the Nighthawks secured the club’s very first Pac North Conference title. Lounsbury was also awarded the conference’s Northern Division Coach of the Year. The Nighthawks have thrived as underdogs in the past, but now the team finds itself as leader of the Pac.

“I have been on the team for eight years, and most of those years we have ended up in second place. So to finally get over that hump and win first place in the conference was really gratifying,” Dwornik said. “I want to feel that again this year and I know we have the right people to do it.”

The Nighthawk’s core group of players have undeniable chemistry. In addition to the WPSL season, they have the opportunity to play together year round in the local Golden Gate Women’s Soccer League - a perk many players say drew them to the Nighthawks.

“There's a sense of community and camaraderie,” said Emily Kuo (Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumna), who’s entering her 10th season with the Nighthawks. “Though practices and games are a time to compete and improve, if you listen closely you'll pick up on teammates catching up on each other's lives and checking in on how everyone is doing.”

This season 25 veterans are slated to return.

“Our returnees are proven champions and the new players fill positions that need bolstering,” said Lounsbury. “We will be contenders!”  

Lounsbury will soon hold on to 25 seasons worth of memories with the Hawks. She fondly remembers getting lost on long road trips with the team, back before GPS, and all the highs and lows the beautiful game can bring.

It remains to be seen which team will hold bragging rights at the end of the club’s 25th season, but one thing’s for sure - for the Nighthawks, the joyride continues.

Nighthawks vs FC Davis, 2023 Season Opener | Photo By:  TJ Valenton

The Nighthawks opened the season at home on May 21 against FC Davis. Davis stole the game in the final minutes after trailing by one point the whole match. After one goal in the 43’ and one in the 46’, the final score was 2-1.

The Nighthawks play next on the road this Saturday, May 27 at 7:30pm PT against Lamorinda United.