Winning soccer team filling fall void at Tech
WVU Tech and the city of Montgomery are enduring their first fall without college football in over 90 years, but a different Golden Bears team is finding success and vying for the attention of the community.
The Tech men's soccer team, playing under the United States Collegiate Athletic Association banner, reeled off seven wins in a row to begin the 2012 campaign before losing its first game 3-2 to Brescia on Thursday. The early success catapulted the Golden Bears to a No. 1 national ranking in the latest USCAA coaches' poll released on Sept. 14.
"We're very proud and very excited," Tech athletic director Frank Pergolizzi said. "I think there is definitely a buzz around campus."
That buzz would be great for a school facing some tough financial times. Those monetary problems are what killed the football team and, alas, life as a Tech soccer coach, player or trainer isn't easy despite what the results would indicate.
For instance, out of the 18 games on the Golden Bears' schedule, 13 are away games. Even home games are a bit of a road trip, as Tech must travel the 30-plus miles from Montgomery to Schoenbaum Stadium in Charleston's Coonskin Park for four of its five "home" dates.
For the record, the next opportunity to check out Tech in Charleston will be at 6 p.m. Monday against Bluefield College in the team's only appearance at Trace Fork Soccer Complex scheduled for this year.
"It's tough. The school is going through a hard time and everybody understands we have to do our part to represent the school the best we can," Tech coach Luis Cortell said. "We're a small school that doesn't have a conference, so we have to do what we have to do."
Cortell said the lack of local appearances is also slowing support for the upstart program.
"Since we play our home games in Charleston, we never really have a whole lot of support," Cortell said of the home crowds.
Also, a lack of funds makes recruiting difficult. As a result, Cortell has had to rearrange his criteria for prospective players, placing academics at the top of the list, well ahead of talent.
While this method may sound like it results in a diminished product on the field, Cortell said the opposite has actually been true.
"The difference has been that I've recruited kids that wanted to do so well academically that when you put them on the soccer field they want to listen and play for the team," Cortell said. "There are no superstars on this team, they all play for each other and that's the thing I'm most proud of.
"Recruiting students with higher academics has allowed them to get academic scholarships. I'd be shocked if 50 percent of our kids are getting athletic money."
Then there is Cortell, who is an interesting story in his own right.
A native of Spain, Cortell was a foreign-exchange student in Colorado in his junior year of high school, then spent his senior year living in Ohio.
His exposure in the Buckeye State led to a track and field scholarship to Findlay University, and it wasn't until a torn quadriceps injury derailed his running career that he even thought of soccer as an option.
"I asked the soccer coach to please let me play on the team," Cortell said. "At that point my track career was over, and since I was from Spain so I figured I could play soccer. The coach at Findlay treated me really well. I played for four years and he gave me a chance to get my master's [degree] and become a [graduate assistant]. I didn't think about being a coach, but after seeing the difference you can make on students, I started."
Cortell was an assistant at Findlay for four years and then at Tiffin for three until Pergolizzi reached out in a desperate situation.
"I was lucky enough that Mr. Pergolizzi offered me a job here," Cortell said. "The coach here quit 10 days before the season started and I was just the interim coach at the time. I'm really lucky he gave me a chance."
After adapting on the fly in his first year, the Golden Bears posted a 10-5-3 record last season, accounting for the best winning percentage in a season in school history. This year, Tech looks poised to do much bigger things, with a berth into the USCAA postseason as the main goal.
"[Cortell]'s in his third year of coaching and there's no question that the program has improved steadily in each year of his tenure," Pergolizzi said. "In the first year he didn't even start until July 1, so he was playing with what was dealt him. Last year he had very solid season, and it looks like this season is going to be even better. He's done a great job and recruited good, young men to campus."
One such player, Rodrigo Manzanares, a civil engineering major from Argentina, was named the USCAA's men's player of the week on Sept. 4 and leads Tech with nine goals on the season.
But Cortell and Pergolizzi have shaped the program once held together by duct tape and bandages into something that reaches beyond wins and losses, statistics or championships.
Both hope the team will mean more to a school and community that his been hit hard in recent times. With its current success, heads may be slowly turning in soccer's direction.
"The soccer players go to every event and genuinely care about all of our teams," Cortell said. "We're nowhere near done. As coaches, trainers and players we've just got to be there for each other through tough times, and I think we can keep getting some wins.
"We're laying the foundation for us to continue to be successful. While it's still too early to say we're doing well, I think our players are doing a great job."
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, email@example.com, or follow him at twitter.com/RPritt.