Generally speaking, most longtime, web-footed residents of Puget Sound know the difference between autumn and winter: right, the rain is colder.
Other climate truths are that snow in the lowlands is uncommon. Still more exceptional are significant accumulations. And rarest phenomena of all are big, pre-Thanksgiving snowstorms followed by a week of sub-freezing temperatures.
Thirty years ago, Washington was bit by just such a perfect storm, plus one more for good measure. And for two local colleges due to host late-round postseason matches, it brought about once-in-a-lifetime experiences for all who took part.
In 1985, Mike Jennings was in his second year as head coach of the University of Puget Sound women's soccer program. His peers also elected him president of their NAIA coaches association and his Tacoma school was the approved host of the fledgling women's semifinals and final.
In that same year, up on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, Seattle Pacific University was in the middle of its most dominant stretch in NCAA Division II. Cliff McCrath's Falcons had won their second national title in '83, lost in overtime of the '84 final and in 1985 was considered one of the top collegiate sides, no matter what the classification.
Yet in all of their calculations and planning for the final stages of their respective seasons, neither Jennings nor McCrath could have foreseen being first buried and then frozen-solid by a freaky fortnight of Alaska-esque winter weather.
Mother Nature Dumps
From Nov. 20 through Dec. 4, SeaTac Airport was blanketed in snow. Not a dusting of snow, but then the sixth-biggest monthly accumulation (17.9 inches) on record and featuring eight consecutive days of highs remaining below freezing. It was white, it was deep and, like those who crossed its path, it wasn't going anywhere fast.
Many roads were impassable; I-90 was closed for 50 miles at one point. Many residents were unable to get out of their driveways. Businesses and schools were shuttered. But the sporting world, true to its competitive nature, were determined to plow ahead: the games must go on.
"The weather was obviously a shocker," states Jennings on the eve of the event's 30thanniversary. On Wednesday, Nov. 20, Jennings' team scrimmaged Evergreen in Olympia. It would be their last local, full-field practice that year. Meanwhile, SPU wrapped-up evening training at Memorial Stadium to the sight of snowflakes in the air.
On Nov. 20, the onslaught began in earnest. Snow kept falling throughout the day, and because western Washingtonians are unaccustomed to the chunky version of their normal fall fare, they began skidding and sliding. By the time the skies cleared, 9.4 inches had fallen at the airport; Tacoma got an even 10.
The next morning SPU players and staff spent nearly as much time reaching SeaTac as their flight time to LA for a quarterfinal at Cal State Northridge. Peter Hattrup's brother gave him and a teammate a lift; the icy conditions on I-5 led to a minor accident en route. Uninjured, Hattrup scored and the Falcons won, 3-2. They returned home to the start of record low temperatures.
Seattle's high was 23 degrees on Nov. 23 after plunging to an overnight low of 8. The average low for that date was 39. There would be no rapid meltdown, at least on the snow's part.
Buddy, Can You Spare a Field?
McCrath was now scrambling. His team was tapped to host West Virginia's Davis & Elkins in a semifinal in six days. In between was the Thanksgiving holiday, and he was both hunting for fields on which to play and practice (SPU was without a true home field until Interbay Stadium opened in 1997). One night it was the basketball court. Seeking something more spacious, they convened under a bubble in Woodinville, 18 rough and rutted miles from campus.
Mother Nature was not done, however. Not by a long shot.
Come Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, the heaviest travel day of the year, Mother Nature returned in a huff. Nearly 8 more inches of snow fell at SeaTac. It took hours to move mere blocks. Shoulders and ditches were filled to near-capacity with abandoned cars, particularly at the foot of inclines. National Weather Service staffers quipped that the best holiday skiing could be found on the slopes of Seattle's First Hill.
The Magic Kingdome
While all roads in and out of Greater Seattle were growing impassable, city and county officials bulldozed through barriers to make the Northwest's sole covered stadium open for business. The Kingdome was made available at bargain basement prices to both Seattle Pacific and local community colleges which were at the semifinal stage of their regional championships.
For the Falcons, the deal marked a complete reversal of fortune. Instead of eventually persuading a field to be plowed and playing on a narrow, icy pitch (which would favor the bigger, more direct Davis Elkins), they would be venturing to the great indoors and a much bigger space (by at least 5 yards width, plus no crown).
"I felt we were better on a bigger grass field, honestly," offers Hattrup. "There would be gaps to play in. Our mobility was a lot better than our size and strength."
Seattle Pacific and the other teams trained under the huge concrete dome on Friday. For the first time that week, the conversation switched from the weather to soccer.
Small School Makes Big Time
On a typical, damp, chilly, late autumn evening at Memorial Stadium, the Falcons might have attracted a few hundred faithful. Suddenly holding forth in a major league facility with parking and controlled climate, SPU pulled five times as many souls who were no doubt sick with cabin fever, and wishing to see a high-flying Hattrup & Co.
In those days, the Kingdome was still in its prime, hosting the Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics, Final Fours and, until 1983, the Sounders. During wintry weather it was a refuge for fans and it's floor a relative haven for the Falcons.
"The Sounders had just gone away not that long before, and it was actually pretty darn cool to be playing in the Kingdome," remembers Hattrup. "That's when we didn't think Astroturf was terrible yet. It was green concrete...rock hard, but we didn't know any better."
Beyond that there was a mystique, a history to giant tomb. Players would be dressing in the same locker rooms used by greats such as Bobby Moore, Mike England, Alan Hudson, or if in the visitors' accommodations, Pele´, Müller and Beckenbauer. For a small school like SPU, it was a special occasion, and that likely contributed to a crowd of 2,467 (still one of the top local collegiate attendance figures).
It was surprising how much sound was generated by that congregation inside such a cavernous arena, but there definitely was a home-field atmosphere. In the nightcap of a tripleheader, Hattrup scored both goals in a 2-1 victory and SPU moved on.
Although McCrath briefly argued playing the Div. II final as a Dome doubleheader with the D1s, UCLA and American University, two weeks later, the NCAA sent the Falcons to Miami to face Florida International.
Longing for a reprieve from the harsh conditions, plus a date with that elusive big grass field, McCrath's players were ecstatic.
"UCLA was coming to Seattle and we were going to where it was 75 degrees and sunny," Hattrup explains. "We got the better part of that deal." Besides, he adds, "We played our Kingdome game."
Next: Let's Play Six (a-Side) - Mike Jennings and Puget Sound are forced to get far more creative for the NAIA women's finals in Tacoma.
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.