FOOTBALL TURNS FIFTY, cont.

Carr

The NAIA Title. One year after the program began, Russ Carr (photo) assumed the head coaching post, a position he would hold through 17 seasons and 202 wins. College soccer, in those days, had a predominantly international flavor. Coach Carr had developed a love for the game while teaching for the US Department of Defense in Germany and England. One of Westmont's early stars, Steve Gay, had learned the sport as the son of missionaries in Costa Rica. In 1972, when the program was just seven years old, the team earned the star that is stitched above the crest on the jerseys—the insignia of an NAIA national title. Both the finals and the semi-finals that year were played in Dunn, North Carolina. Heavy rains had made the field nearly unplayable, but the coaches in the Final Four could not agree on a postponement. Carr (who was unable to attend the 50th anniversary due to his wife's health) recalled that their opponents may not have realized how much experience Westmont already had playing in the rain (a sure sign that this was a far different time in Southern California). A 2-1 overtime victory over the defending national champion on that soggy pitch gave the college its first-ever national title in any sport. Westmont finished with a record of 16-1-1, including victories over USC and Stanford.

The Indoor Match. The early 1970s saw several indoor matches in Murchison Gym, none more notable than a contest between Westmont and the Los Angeles Aztecs of the former NASL professional league, the predecessor of the current MLS. A full house saw Westmont rally from four goals down to earn a 10-10 draw. "In hindsight," Coach Carr wrote, "I should never have talked the Aztecs into playing an overtime period." That allowed the Aztecs to "salvage their professional pride" with a 12-11 victory, though the match was a fine showing for a college club.

National Semi-Finalists. The 1989 team still gets cited as one of the gold standards of the program, and their season saw an undefeated run through the conference schedule, victories over UCSB and Loyola, a regional title, and an 18-3-3 record. The last loss came in the semi-finals of the national tournament. In 2014, the team held a 25th anniversary reunion during a Westmont-Kansas Wesleyan game.

The Tea Fire Season. This story still reverberates throughout the Westmont community. Even before the Tea Fire swept through the Montecito hills, the 2008 GSAC championship game already had plenty of storylines. After finishing in sixth place during the regular season, Westmont had secured playoff road victories against Vanguard and 2007 national runner-up Concordia in the early rounds, setting up a final against defending national champion Azusa Pacific University. APU was coached by Phil Wolf, Dave’s brother, and had suffered only one defeat the previous year—against Westmont in the GSAC playoffs. Yet, less than two days before the final, the fire swept across Westmont, consuming several faculty homes, including that of Dave and Jill Wolf. In a gesture of sportsmanship that drew national acclaim, Azusa Pacific refused to win by forfeit and postponed the conference final to give Westmont a chance to recover. Westmont’s 2-0 upset in that match was most certainly driven by emotion, not only that of the players but also that of the hundreds of students who travelled down to Azusa to see the match. The game made the front page of the sports section in the LA Times and was the subject of one of Bill Plaschke’s most laudatory columns. Without a field ready to host the first round of the national playoffs, Westmont played the opening round at UCSB's Harder Stadium and used the occasion—a double-overtime victory—as an opportunity to thank Santa Barbara firefighters and volunteers. One more victory in the NAIA playoffs brought the team to the Elite Eight, where the magic run finally ended.

Anyone who spends time watching soccer knows that the game can hit lulls: back-and-forth play that seems discontinuous and random, a string of odd bounces, wind gusts, and lost opportunities. But then something artistic emerges: a tapestry of passes, a brilliant strike, or what the English call a "sublime touch." "I think that the beauty of football," the columnist Brian Phillips contends, "is primarily a consolation, and that when we call football 'the beautiful game' we mean . . . that we hope it will be." For the past eight seasons—four as a father, four as a provost—I have spent hours watching Westmont matches with the hope that something beautiful will emerge out of the run of play, often when you least expect it. Many of the most compelling moments, though, have not been on the pitch, but in the ways that athletes, coaches, and the community rallied around one another during times of struggle. In his remarks at the banquet, Coach Wolf called the struggles “friends, not foes, for they have driven me to the Creator.” As the anniversary banquet confirmed, fifty years of Westmont soccer have provided plenty of occasions when teammates found one another. To cite the words of Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues, "In football, the worst blindness is only seeing the ball."