Aug 23, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 26th Street, Marshall Soccer went uptown on Friday.
A field of dreams became a reality.
Yes, it was a Grand Opening for what is much more than a 1,006-seat stadium.
After 34 men’s seasons and 15 years of women’s play, the Thundering Herd had its greatest day in the sport with the dedication of the impressive Hoops Family Field at the Veterans Memorial Soccer Complex on a warm, cloud-sprinkled evening before a standing-room crowd of 1,433.
Plenty of schools would be kelly green with envy over “The Vet,” which also is a worthy memorial setting to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.
Veteran men’s Coach Bob Gray – the dean of all Herd athletic coaches – came to Marshall in 1995, three seasons before the women played an official intercollegiate game. He’s coached 342 of the 621 MU men’s games played.
So, was this the biggest day, the biggest event, in Herd soccer history?
“I wouldn’t argue with that, for sure,” said Gray, whose young 2013 club downed an MU alumni team 2-0 on goals by Jahvon Allison and Felipe Thompson and a shutout by Danny Sellitti. “I’m sure the very first game (in 1979) was very special for those players, moving from club team to varsity, and certainly that first year I coached here is very special to me as well.
“Still, I don’t think any of that compares to what this means to our two programs, to the university, and to soccer in the community.”
This facility – made possible by the ongoing MU Vision Campaign for Athletics – could be the place to get the Marshall programs where they want to go.
On a happy Herd night on big soccer weekend, the Marshall women opened their 16th season with a 3-0 triumph over Campbell on goals by sophomore Erin Simmons and freshmen Beth Dine and Kayla Burnside.
Senior Casey Walsh had two assists and junior Lizzie Kish got the shutout in her first career start in goal.
Coach Kevin Long said his team “feels special getting to be the first to play an official game here … It’s history.
“Our players have talked about wanting to make sure to do their part in starting off a new tradition here at Marshall.”
Gray’s status in the sport has been the hallmark of Herd soccer. He is starting his 37th season as one of the game’s winningest coaches. He ranks third among active Division I coaches in victories (422-228-48 record). A three-time conference coach of the year who has sent several players into MLS, He is ninth all-time in wins among Division I coaches, and 24th among all coaches in NCAA history (including Division II and III). He’s only 10 wins from the top 20.
So, he knows it when he sees “special.”
“The high mark for me before this was playing for a conference title, on national TV,” Gray said of the 2009 C-USA tournament final loss to Tulsa. “For us, there have been a lot of highlights, but to me the highlight is watching these young men graduating and going on to be very productive people in society. I think all our coaches would say that.
“The thing that excites me even more than this facility is the response from our soccer alumni about it, how proud they are of this place. They didn’t have opportunity to play here, but they know what it means to our program, to their program.
“As the old saying goes, ‘We Are … Marshall.’ They’re a very close-knit family in soccer and that’s been proven this weekend with their support. About 90 are playing golf (Saturday at Esquire Golf Club).We’ve had close to 80 purchase ($1,000 engraved) bricks in the stadium plaza for the Vision Campaign, so they’re showing their financial support as well. And I think we’ll continue to expand that.”
Long’s striped-jerseyed (scintillatingly soccer stylish) team had the privilege of playing the first intercollegiate game on the Hoops pitch … and it took Simmons only 1:40 into the debut game to record the historic first shot and first goal in Hoops history.
“It was pretty sweet; I didn’t really even think about it, I just kind of shot the ball,” Simmons said of her off-the-bat special moment. “It was a big adrenalin rush … It was a shock. I didn’t expect it at all. The opportunity was just there and I just capitalized on it.”
“I think it got our game going and picked up the team as a whole, we started to pick up the pace and just stayed strong the whole game.”
Long was thrilled his Herd could cap a significant night in Marshall Athletics.
“That’s how we had been billing it,” Long said when asked his team’s appreciation for the night. “We’ve been trying to get players to realize this is special, the result is going to be remembered and last forever, in ink; it will stand for time.
“While enjoying the moment, because it’s exciting and fun, you also have to take a step back, take a few breaths because you have to play a game. Between the two of those – the event and the game … this is the largest crowd they’ll play in front of, maybe the most special game they will play until conference tournament time or when we excel, into NCAA Tournaments.
“So, it’s clearly a fun time and one game in a season, but when you put it into the context of this school’s program and reflect on all the careers in the past, it’s got to be one of the biggest events … and it’s in a stadium that’s expected to last a lifetime.”
Although the stadium amenities are special for the home Herd, it’s the 120x75 yard expanse that’s likely to be called “the Hoops” as time marches on.
“The first thing, foremost, the thing that catches the players’ eyes, is the field itself,” said Long, who started his sixth MU season Friday. “It looks fantastic, plays fantastic. The thing that most soccer enthusiasts and players will pick up on, they like seeing that green, they like seeing that big surface that they can play on and exhibit their skills on.
“Then you get into the building and all their needs are here, one-stop, locker rooms, training room, offices, and it’s state-of-the-art. This place is icing on the cake, a great field surface and on top of that a wonderful facility in which to operate our programs.”
So, the Hoops Family dribbled it off to the Herd family. This night was about history. Now, it becomes about soccer, and the Herd women host Kent State (1-0-0) at “The Vet” on Sunday at 1 p.m.
No one should mistake how fashionable soccer could become at Marshall.
After all, its address is Fifth Avenue.