There was a time when soccer was king in Morrisville, N.Y. …
A rush of emotions hit me last month when I saw the news that Peter McAvoy, the young man who was captain for the Herikimer County Community College soccer team in upstate New York, collapsed and died.
So tragic, so sad, so heart-breaking that this 22-year-old native of Ireland passed away in the prime of his life, after leading the Generals to two straight junior college national championships.
By all accounts, McAvoy was one of the most popular students on the Herkimer campus.
He fit in with the student body and appreciated his time just in upstate New York.
My thoughts were taken back to the mid-1970s, when another two-year college in Central New York was annually battling for soccer supremacy, and using the sweat equity of young men born in other lands to achieve such heights.
Art Lemery was the coach who had the knack of finding a few young men born in faraway places to fit in with New York state players to form a hearty bond that not only was famous all through campus, but extended from dorm to dorm and classroom to classroom and bar to bar.
Lemery was a friendly sort, intense on the sidelines during the games but quick with a hello around campus.
In my two years at Morrisville Agricultural and Technical College, one heck of a rural place for New York State to place its only public university journalism program at the time, the foreign born players were Papa Jobe and Gus Owusu, of Africa, and Elias Mena, of El Salvador.
Jobe was tall, sleek, fast, regal, quick with his feet and his head, and unquestionably the best soccer player on the field every time he stepped on the turf.
Owusu was short, plucky, funny, tough, quick with his feet, and unwilling to back down from any opponent, no matter what.
Off the field, though, he was always smiling.
If you saw Gus Owusu across the quad and waved, he’s run across so you couldn’t duck into a building before he got the chance to day hi back.
A yearbook story in 1976 about Owusu included the headline “Son of a Chief.”
The article said Gus was one of 99 sons and daughters to his father, Nama Owusu Gyamfi. Nama meant chief.
Mena was thick, strong, precise, commanding, smart, strategic, and always striving to live up to his nickname of Guanaco. “Hard-working burro,” he’d say to me with a smile, time after time, whether we be talking about soccer, studies, or life in general.
Out of the three players from other countries, I knew Elias best. He was roommates in West Hall with my journalism classmate and best friend, Greg Ten Eyck.
Elias turned me on to a less mainstream side of the music of Carlos Santana, I recall, spinning “Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles Live: Love, Devotion & Surrender.” A group of us would sit in he and Greg’s room, dreaming big dreams, grooving to the soulful guitar and funky drums.
Home soccer games at Morrisville were big-time events.
The two-year college didn’t have a football team, so athletic director John DeVencenzo wisely scheduled as many home games as he could for Saturday afternoons. With the soccer team’s success, the famously “suitcase campus” would remain more vibrant until the games were concluded.
The field sat at the base of a hill on the outer edge of campus. A thousand or so students would sit on the grass, cheering for the green-uniformed Morrisville Mustangs. Beer was usually involved in the rooting process.
Behind the hill was a cornfield. The cornfield was usually involved in the beer process.
Eventually, the most vocal fans started an informal group called The Rowdies.
The cheerleaders would stand on the other side of the field and cheer, as loud as they could, “Hey, Rowdies, Who you rooting for?” And the 100 or so boisterous boys and couple brave girls would answer “M-A-T-C.” Then we Rowdies would shout the same question to the cheerleaders, and they would respond.
When it rained, students would slip and slide down the hill, unwillingly, toward the field, and crawl back up to the group to cheer some more.
Visiting fans and parents of any players did not know what to make of this scene.
MATC’s two toughest rivals in the NJCAA Region were Monroe and Fulton-Montgomery.
One playoff game came on the road against Monroe, just outside of Rochester.
We Rowdies flagged down everybody on campus we knew who owned a car to form a caravan.
Midway through the game, Papa Jobe went down with an injury, grabbing his leg and writhing in pain.
We Rowdies held our breaths.
His teammates carried Papa off the field, where he lied prone as a trainer poked and prodded. His teammates hung their heads. The Monroe players gained a bounce to their steps.
The field seemed to tilt toward the Morrisville goal for a couple of minutes.
Suddenly Papa Jobe bounced up on his feet, raced to the scorer’s table and re-entered the game. The Rowdies cheered. His teammates cheered. The Monroe players hung their heads.
Another playoff game loomed at home, in November.
The night before the game, it snowed. A lot.
That morning, we Rowdies met at the field with Activities Director Tony Patane, a lot of shovels, one snowblower and a flatbed truck.
The entire soccer field was cleared of a foot of snow.
The Mustangs made the national tournament that year, but did not capture the title.
But Morrisville did win its first NJCAA national championship for coach Art Lemery, in 1980.
Art Lemery took on the additional duties of Morrisville athletic director after DeVencenzo retired. He retired as soccer coach in 1995. He still lives happily just outside of the Morrisville campus. His son, Tom, is known as “the voice of Morrisville” for announcing the college’s games on radio.
Ousman “Papa” Jobe was inducted into the SUNY Morrisville Wall of Fame in 2013. Many of his teammates returned for the ceremony, including Gus Owusu.
The Wall of Fame hangs proudly next to the Hall of Champions trophy case in the lobby of the SUNY Morrisville Student Activities Building. A soccer ball from the 1980 championship season is prominently displayed in the middle of the trophy case.
SUNY Morrisville now hands out four-year degrees as well as associate’s degrees. Sports teams play against other four-year colleges. Morrisville fields a football program.
The football team plays in a modern new stadium equipped with artificial turf.
Soccer is no longer the king of fall sports at Morrisville.
Nevertheless, former soccer players still return to the Morrisville campus to visit with each other and their beloved coach, Art Lemery.
Was there a certain element of success at your college that you found surprising and particularly satisfying?