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083014: Utah Valley vs. UMass

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Preview by Robert Kehoe, III

Season openers can be especially passionate occasions, but it will be hard to match the emotions in play when NSCAATV kicks off its College Soccer Special series when Utah Valley plays UMass on August 30. Whereas the Wolverines of UVU celebrate their inaugural season, becoming the first Division I men’s soccer program in Utah, the Minutemen of Massachusetts take the field in their first official match since suffering the loss of head coach Sam Koch. 

A native New Englander and a soccer pioneer, Koch was the kind of coach players dream of--a sound tactician whose on field instruction could organize and inspire, and a mentor whose office door was open to nurturing conversation for twenty-three years. Team captain Matt Keys, said Koch was committed to his players’ success on and off the field, treating the team like sons, and while the coach as “father figure” has become a standard cliché in athletic circles, it’s only cliché if it isn’t true. Over six hundred family members, former players, colleagues and rivals traveled from around the country to attend Koch’s memorial service, validating his patriarchal qualities in an outpouring of respect for the former UMass manager. Keys, who spoke at the service, said afterward, “there was as much joy in celebrating coach’s legacy, as there was sadness in addressing the loss.”

Koch’s passion for life, his love of the game, and commitment to the UMass community was especially felt at the memorial’s conclusion when guests were encouraged to grab their boots and head back to Rudd Field for an open pick up match. Keys said it was a peaceful time of collective reflection, story telling, and of course, the beautiful game Koch gave so much of his life to.

Of course, the work of mourning is a process, and as Keys and fellow senior Josh Schwartz both said, the continuity and stability provided by interim coach Devin O’Neill has been essential in handling their coach’s passing, while embracing the demands of the season ahead and the future of UMass soccer.

O’Neill, who embarks on his third year in Amherst, is honored to follow his predecessor’s foot steps, but said that Koch’s personality, wit and humor will be irreplaceable. “It’s a beautiful day to be alive, gentlemen,” was his oft cited opening to team meetings and practices, and O’Neill laughed when he remembered how Koch would quiz his squad on the current temperature in Alaska if there was too much grumbling in cold weather.

“He was such a quirky guy,” Keys said fondly, “who could lighten the mood just as easily as he could ratchet up the focus.”

Schwartz also shared how grateful he was for Koch’s support, whether he was preparing for the MCAT or discussing improvements on the field. In both cases, he said Koch was instrumental.

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“He showed me how to balance my approach as a student on the field and in the classroom. On the field he helped me understand my style of play, with little things like checking over my shoulder as I received the ball, improving my vision with the ball, and as a forward learning to create chances by pressuring higher up the field.”

As UMass continues to navigate a wide range of emotions, both Keys and Schwartz expressed that the team has rallied around Coach Koch’s memory and are poised to show well in the A-10, and hopefully secure a trip to the NCAAs. 

On the other side of the spectrum, and country, Utah Valley University is eagerly awaiting their first official kick off to a men’s soccer season.

Set in scenic Orem, just outside Salt Lake City, coach Greg Maas has been recruiting a talented group of players while cultivating a fan base through a variety of events and strategic marketing efforts for the last two years ago. The university took out a TV add that ran during every match of last summer’s World Cup, and rented billboards between Salt Lake and Orem announcing, “Futbol is Here!” 

Having just played an inter squad match to a capacity crowd of two thousand, UVU’s efforts to generate a fan base have already been rewarded, and while the Wolverines are listed at the bottom of the WAC preseason coaches poll, expectations are high within the program.

Maas, and associate head coach Matt Ellinger, who met during their time at Real Salt Lake, both bring a wide range of playing and coaching experience to ensure that the Wolverines are led by a highly experienced managerial and technical staff. They also have some gifted players, particularly in the midfield tandem of Karson Payton and Paul Hoffmeister. Both Payton and Hoffmeister were mentioned in my recent player watch at American Soccer Now, and both have spent significant time in pro development systems, so it’s unlikely that seasoned programs will rattle UVU in the center of the park. 

According to Ellinger, “there’s no doubt we’ll have some tough games, and we’ll need to manage new situations as a team, but we think we have a quality side and we wanted to play the toughest schedule possible.” Ellinger also said of Maas, “Greg knows how to prepare players, give them the best chance to succeed, and instill a pursuit of excellence throughout the team. That’s what he’s all about, so we aren’t thinking too much about being a first year program. We’re looking at our inaugural season as a chance to play well every time we hit the pitch, win, lose or draw. One of the biggest challenges we face will be managing emotions no matter what comes our way, good or bad.”

Back in Massachusetts, the emotional challenges have been vastly different ever since Coach Koch was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. But they’re challenges that he, and now O’Neill, have embraced in their preparation for the 2014 season. As painful as this spring and summer have been for UMass, the interim coach said, “coming to terms with Sam’s loss and healing will be a very individual experiences for our players. But as a team we’ll look to find some happiness when we get into the season and the guys can just play the game they love.”

On Saturday night, NSCAATV appropriately opens a new season of extensive coverage, with a kick off that celebrates the past, present and future of soccer in America. When UVU and UMass take the field, Sam Koch’s life and work will be honored with a moment of silence. Then the teams will line up, over two thousand fans will applaud in anticipation of the opening kick, the referee’s whistle will initiate play, and something unpredictable and new will begin.

Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College.

NSCAATV: Utah Valley vs. UMass

When: Saturday, August 30, 2014

Location: Orem, UT

Game time: 9:30 PM ET

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