A Catskill Catalog: February 15, 2012

Soccer has to be included in any catalog of Catskill Mountain life. Soccer madness visits many mountain towns every fall, particularly the central school-hosting villages throughout Delaware and Greene counties; Downsville, Andes, Roxbury, Windham, Tannersville, South Kortright, Davenport, Stamford, Gilboa, Jefferson and Margaretville.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, six-man football was king. But football is a violent game, and in 1946, a South Kortright lad died from injuries incurred in a game, and folks began to rethink small-school, high school sports. By 1953, football was gone from the mountains. Local kids would play fall baseball instead.

That didn’t work out so well, what with two baseball seasons every school year. So, by the late ’50s, soccer was given a try.

We live in a world today where soccer mom is a readily identifiable demographic category, and practically every kid in America has played in a soccer league somewhere. Makes it difficult for folks to recognize just how foreign soccer seemed to Americans of the 1950s and 60s.

My own introduction to the game came from two Italian chefs working at the country club near my suburban boyhood home. I was about 12, one of the neighborhood gang that invaded the country club grounds daily to play pick-up baseball and softball. One day, the two chefs had commandeered our field before us. On break and dressed in kitchen whites, they volleyed a soccer ball back and forth to each other, having what appeared to be a catch with their feet. In broken English, they invited us kids to join them.

I remember how weird it felt, trying to do with our feet what we had long been taught to do with our hands; project a ball accurately to another, receive it, control it, get it where we wanted it to go. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t come close.

It must have been like that for the kids who first turned out for soccer as the ’50s became the’60s, when their local schools adopted it as the fall sport. I’ll bet they felt just as awkward as I did. We didn’t grow up using our feet that way!

Those first soccer players were all boys. There were no girls’ sports teams until the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon signed into law the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that included Title IX: “No person in the United Stated shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal assistance.”

Most of those first mountain-school soccer teams were coached by former football players. When I came to teach in the Catskills, I was pressed into service as a soccer coach myself, running a junior varsity team for 10 years. I say running, because that’s pretty much what we did. As an old football guy myself, I coached the only way I knew; we might not know much soccer technique, but we will be in shape!

Perhaps, Jim Campbell, at Downsville, was the first to bring real soccer knowledge and technique to the mountains. By the 1970s, soccer was beginning to come of age in the area. In Roxbury, Duane Ely created an outstanding soccer program. Duane had been a superb athlete and multi-sport star at East Stroudsburg University and he made Roxbury competitive in every sport.

In Margaretville, Pete Palen returned to his high school alma mater to teach English and coach soccer. Captain of the Union College soccer team, Pete brought real soccer experience, knowledge, and a passion for the game back home with him. Add to the mix a youth program founded by Czech émigré George Stevens, and soccer became something of a local religion in these parts.

This led to a whole bunch of top-notch, professional soccer coaches coming from our mountains. Some stayed close to home. Bobby Van Valkenburgh learned his coaching lessons from Duane Ely and took them to South Kortright. Jeremey Marks learned from Pete Palen and brought his lessons back home to Margaretville.

Others spread out around the country. I’m sure I will leave somebody out, but here goes. Mickey McDaniel has coached both men’s and women’s programs at Tompkins-Cortland Community College. Maxwell Mead coaches the boys at Ellenville High School. Owen Finberg wins New England prep school titles at South Kent School in Connecticut. Patrick Birns (my son!) was Lehigh Valley Conference Coach-of-the-Year at Parkland High School in Pennsylvania.

But, as I like to remind Patrick, only one Catskill Mountain/Delaware County kid has won a national championship. Laurie Darling Guthell, who grew up on a farm in Halcottsville, guided the Saint Rose Women to the NCAA Division II National Championship, coming from behind to knock off two-time defending national Champ, Grand Valley State, on December 3, 2011 in Pensacola Florida.
National Champions! That’s huge.

Soccer in the Catskills is big enough for this column. Let’s save our own national champ, Coach Laurie Darling Gutheil, for her own catalog entry, next week.
billbirns@gmail.com