West Virginia University begins its 50th year of men’s soccer Sept. 3 when the Mountaineers open the regular season against Monmouth in the Save Face WVU Classic at Dick Dlesk Stadium (Coach Marlon LeBlanc says plans are in the works for a big celebration in 2011 for the sport’s 50th season at WVU).
Soccer was officially introduced as West Virginia University’s 12th varsity sport in 1961 when the Athletic Council authorized then-athletic director Red Brown to hire a coach and assemble a schedule.
University swimming coach Lewis Ringer was the first man appointed, but he soon gave way to Jim Markel before the season began. Markel came to Morgantown from the University of Corpus Christi where he organized the school’s first swimming team in 1960. Most of Markel’s coaching experience was in swimming, however.
“He was a nice guy but he didn’t know a whole lot about soccer,” recalled Martin Pushkin, a goalkeeper on West Virginia’s first team in 1961 and later a successful college track coach at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and West Virginia. “A friend of his, (School of Physical Education faculty member) Sam Maurice, was responsible for bringing him here.”
West Virginia’s inaugural schedule in 1961 was made up mostly of junior varsity and small college teams, the Mountaineers posting a 2-5-3 record with their two victories coming against Fairmont State and West Virginia Wesleyan.
“We started off on a small scale,” Pushkin said. “We didn’t play a lot of big teams.”
The home matches were played on a vacant field along Monongahela Boulevard on the outskirts of town where the WVU Coliseum presently sits, and the players constantly complained about the field not being level and full of rocks.
“You could see about half of your outside left because the field fell off so much and the ball would roll down the hill for a couple hundred yards once it rolled out of bounds,” recalled Ralph Rossi, a two-year Mountaineer letterman on the 1964 and 1965 teams.
There were no restroom facilities for the players to use and when they had to go to the bathroom during practice the guys just ran over the hill and into the woods. The team locker room was at the old stadium where they would dress before jogging up Mon Boulevard before each practice.
“Some of us had a later class that didn’t end until 3:30 and practice started at four, so we got out of class, threw our books into our space, ran down to the old stadium to get dressed, and then we would run all the way out to the field up that big hill,” said Rossi. “I remember the very first time we got there coach said, ‘Run the horn!’ I said, ‘We just ran two miles from downtown uphill!’ He said, ‘Run the horn!’ So we ran the horn.”
The horn was a path that circled the entire athletic complex, including the baseball field and the football practice fields. “Our guys were in really good shape,” laughed Ken Juskowich.
Most of the players that first season were either international students (who at least had some idea what they were doing) or University athletes such as Pushkin trying to remain in shape during the fall semester.
“I had gone out for football and I practiced well and dressed for a few games, but I never really got an opportunity to play as a walk-on so I was looking for something to do,” said Pushkin, a hurdler on the track team. “I got interested in soccer and I figured I could be a goalie; why not?”
The imports included Caspar Boelcskevy from Hungary and Tom Sbarra from Italy.
“Their footwork was good and they played up on the forward line,” said Pushkin of Boelcskevy and Sbarra. “We took it seriously and we trained hard; we did the best that we could.”
Markel coached the Mountaineers to a much-improved 8-2 record in 1962 before giving way to Sam Maurice, who led WVU to a pair of successful seasons in 1963 and 1964.
Maurice expanded West Virginia’s schedule to include games against Pitt, Ohio State and Virginia Tech, and he also began giving out scholarships in 1964. The first three to get them were Pittsburghers Rossi, Juskowich and Keith Price – Price’s eventually going to Jack Shannon when he didn’t make it to school.
“The way I got recruited to WVU was I actually went up to Point Park for a couple of years playing in a league in Pittsburgh,” recalled Rossi. “The way they found me – and the way they found a lot of players – was the referees in the Pittsburgh leagues also did college games and these guys would see us play and the coaches would ask if there were any good players up there. That’s how (West Virginia) got in touch with me.”
The Pittsburgh soccer scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s was an interesting one, according to Juskowich, who later distinguished himself as a record-setting field goal kicker on the Mountaineer football team. The different townships and boroughs in Pittsburgh were made up of various ethnic groups that played soccer on the weekends, and Juskowich remembered frequently going to the park on Sundays to play soccer all afternoon.
“In Western Pennsylvania, we probably had a dozen teams in the area,” Juskowich said. “Soccer followed all of the ethnic people that came over like the Mount Washington Slovaks, the Hazelwood Hungarians and the Italian influence up in the Monongahela Valley. It came with the heritage of being second generation in those countries. My father and all of these guys’ fathers came over from someplace in Europe, and they brought that heritage of soccer with them.”
Juskowich was a national class player who scored the only goal for the U.S. team in the 1963 Guatemala Games, but his soccer career at WVU never materialized because of a broken foot he suffered during his freshman season. That’s when he decided to give football a try at the urging of Coach Greg Myers.
“Without him I would have never been on the football team,” said Juskowich.
When Maurice left the program to sell insurance, Myers, a two-year Mountaineer letterman in 1962-63, was hired away from Davis & Elkins to coach the team in 1965. The young coach was ambitious, intense and full of ideas.
“Greg was a real student of the game and really, technically, was one of the top coaches in college at that time,” noted Rossi.
Myers had a no-nonsense approach, working his players hard and demanding a great deal from them. Once during a road trip to Ohio State, Myers noticed that the hotel his team was staying at in Columbus was situated between several sororities, so he made his players hand over their trousers before they retired to their rooms.
“He had the trainer tape the doors shut to make sure nobody went out,” laughed Rossi. “The next morning he walked by and handed all the players their pants.”
Myers had the team so focused that afternoon that they only lost 4-1 to the Buckeyes. “I got clipped going in for a goal and they didn’t give me a penalty kick,” Rossi said.
Myers went from losing 4-1 to Ohio State and 9-2 to Penn State that first season to beating both teams the following year in 1966.
“He was one of the quickest learners for a sport that I had ever seen,” said Rossi. “He was really a great coach with what he had to work with – kids that had never played before. He just worked you to death and you loved to play for him because you knew he was in it with all of his heart.”
Myers was also smart enough to hit the road and bring in some good players, getting top prospects from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Plus, he also got some good fortune when Ron McEachen and Nick Ivahnenko, the two best players from junior college national champion Mitchell College, became available.
“What happened was Nick Ivahnenko and I were going to go to (NCAA soccer power) Bridgeport,” said McEachen. “We had scholarships and something happened along the way to one of the scholarships and Nick said, ‘I’m not going because I can’t afford it.’ Myers kept on us and I said, ‘You know what, since Nick’s not going I’m not going either’ and we both ended up going to WVU.”
Immediately those two, and later junior college star Walt Nistorenko, turned West Virginia into one of the best soccer teams in the country.
“We came from nowhere,” said Rossi. “I was the first full scholarship (books and tuition) and imagine, in a matter of three years we went from that all the way to getting a bid into the NCAAs.”
Myers’ first season in 1965 saw the Mountaineers post a 7-5-1 record against a vastly improved slate that included Penn State, Pitt and Ohio State.
West Virginia had recorded its first big victory over the Buckeyes during Maurice’s last season in 1964. The match was moved to old Mountaineer Field to accommodate that large number of fans that came out to watch the game.
“That was probably the biggest victory we had up to that point,” noted Rossi. “We had a big crowd – at that time if you got 50 people at a game that was big – but we actually had about 1,500 and we played a great game.
“That was a huge upset,” Rossi continued. “I’ll never forget, Penn State was playing Ohio State in football that day (Penn State defeated the Buckeyes 27-0) and they kept announcing the score of the football game during our game and Penn State was beating Ohio State, too.”
By 1966, Myers had a team good enough to qualify for the 16-team NCAA tournament. Rossi was helping coach the Mountaineers that season and he recalls having to borrow some old warm-ups from the wrestling team just so they would look presentable during warm-ups for their first-round game against Temple.
“We were really, really underprivileged when it came to equipment,” said Rossi. “We had some football hand-me-downs, but a lot of it had been through the track team and then down to us, so we got thirds in socks and jocks and things like that.”
McEachen, WVU’s first All-American player in 1967, remembers being a little underwhelmed when he finally got his first look at what the soccer program had to offer.
“At Mitchell everything we had was first-rate,” McEachen recalled. “We came down there and things were a little different. We didn’t have those things, but in those days I don’t think it really bothered us as much as it might today. We loved the game, we loved being with the guys that we were with and we had a ball doing it.”
Despite having another strong team back for 1967, Myers decided to return to Davis & Elkins where he turned the Senators into a NAIA power, compiling a 39-2-4 record and winning national championships in 1968 and 1970 before turning to professional soccer.
Twenty two-year-old John Stewart, a Myers prot�g�, was hired to coach the Mountaineers in 1967. McEachen, now a coach at Skidmore College in Connecticut, believes Stewart’s first team in ‘67 was among the best in school history. The Mountaineers lost only once, a 6-2 decision at Penn State, when more than half the team was out with injuries.
“I don’t know if Nick and I even went to the game,” said McEachen. “I think I was sick and Nick was hurt.”
That was the only loss the team suffered on the way to an 11-1 record. The Mountaineers went on the road to beat Akron and Ohio State, and also registered a four-goal victory over rival Pitt. In the Southern Conference tournament, WVU outscored William & Mary and Davidson 14-0 to easily capture the league title. Despite such an impressive record a bid to the national tournament never came.
“We got screwed,” said McEachen. “We beat Akron at Akron that year and we had a great team. It was too bad. They took Maryland in because the Maryland coach was on the (selection) committee. Now, you are supposed to take yourself off, but those kinds of things went on back then.”
Stewart coached the Mountaineers to another successful season in 1968, guiding West Virginia to an 8-1-1 record and the school’s second NCAA tournament appearance against soccer power Saint Louis.
“We were beating them out there 2-0 in the mud and rain and they came back and beat us 3-2,” said Rossi.
Following the completion of his second year in 1968, Stewart was drafted into the service and the program was handed over to John C. McGrath, who coached the Mountaineers for 27 seasons before leading them into the Big East Conference in 1995.
Today, West Virginia plays in one of the finest leagues in the country with a soccer reputation to match.
“Marlon (LeBlanc) has done a great job with the program,” said McEachen, who has yet to return to Morgantown since graduating in 1969. “I’ve done just about everything as a player and a coach in soccer, but I have never gotten back down to Morgantown and WVU.”
The pioneering players all credit Sam Maurice as the founding father of soccer at West Virginia University, but it was Greg Myers who really introduced big-time soccer to the region.
“He wanted to elevate the program, and for the two years that he was here, he did,” said Rossi.
By John Antonik
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