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Let It Snow and Let's Play Six (a-Side)

When the University of Puget Sound hosted the NAIA women's finals and heavy snow blanketed Puget Sound, the choice was either to shake hands and go home or change the game.

Courtesy The News Tribune

One the morning of Nov. 27, 1985, planes departed from the Midwest, Southern California and the East Coast carrying teams to Tacoma, Wash., for the NAIA Women's Soccer Championships. They were all flying into what would become the strangest and one of the most controversial national finals in collegiate annals.

It was Thanksgiving Eve and by nightfall over a foot of snow would cover the grass of Baker Stadium on the University of Puget Sound campus. Semifinal games were slated to be played on that field two days later, posing a problem for Mike Jennings.

It's not as if Jennings needed more on his plate that Thanksgiving. He was the father of newborn twins earning around $3,000 as the Loggers' coach. His role as tournament director was voluntary. He was also enrolled in the university's physical therapy program.

Jennings and the UPS athletics staff had organized a tournament that would hopefully give women's soccer both a boost locally and within the national small-college ranks. The AIAW held the first (all-division) collegiate championship for women five years earlier, with NCAA taking over in 1982. Jennings had helped initiate the NAIA sponsoring the first small-college national finals in 1984, and now he was serving as host.

White-Out Erases Big Plans

The Seattle-Tacoma area had long supported men's college and professional soccer. In December 1985, the NCAA Division I men's final, coined the Big Kick, would be held in the Kingdome. While the NAIA and UPS lacked the financial resources of the Big Kick, Jennings' care and attention to details promised a first-class experience for the four competing teams.

Then came a 1-2 punch of snowstorms and all the best-laid plans were in tatters.

"We had it all teed up, with a banquet and really nice programs," recalls Jennings. "Then it all got sideswiped by the snow."

"We got over a foot of snow," says Shelley (Flack) Beck, then a freshman midfielder for UPS. "Then the big talk was clearing the field (but) they wouldn't let us use heavy equipment because it would ruin the grass." Baker Stadium was also the Loggers' football venue.

"This came out of the middle of nowhere; it was an unexpected snowfall," says J.P Verhees, the Westmont coach. "Nobody expected that. A little bit of snow or a small layer, you can play through that. So panic set in."

Hello, Governor?

Even before the second dumping of snow, Jennings had been desperately trying to find alternative sites. Virtually every facility was either booked or buried. Jennings had coached alongside Washington state governor Booth Gardner for the vaunted Cozars women's club. However, even Gardner was unable to marshal resources to move the mountain of white.

Both Seattle's Kingdome-where the Seattle Pacific men and local community colleges had booked for their respective semifinals-and Tacoma Dome were outside the NAIA's price range.

The three regional champions-New York's Houghton, Wilmington of Ohio and Santa Barbara's Wesmont-were all huddled at the snowbound tournament hotel. Most of the Puget Sound players were captive on campus. The banquet, set for thanksgiving night, was canceled. However, the tournament committee convened that evening to determine any possible solutions.

Jennings reported that no outdoor fields were playable, let alone available. With Houghton not able to play Sunday, and everyone flying home by Monday morning, games could not be postponed. "That pushed us into this corner," says Jennings. "We're all here and have no place to play."

Better Than a Handshake

There was, however, one remaining alternative to shaking hands and going their separate ways. The manager of the Tacoma Soccer Center, one of the region's fist indoor facilities, notified Jennings that his field was available. Of course, it was a fraction of the size of a full field and was enclosed by dasher boards, plexiglass and netting.

The three-man NAIA committee huddled and determined the only way to salvage the tournament was to modify it and move indoors.

That decision was met with resistance by the two eastern teams. Houghton had played it's regional title game in a blizzard. "We were ready to play in snow," coach Terry Curry told The News Tribune. Houghton had spent $8,000 to travel west. Wilmington's Don Pechlenburg reasoned it simply wasn't the same game.

On that point there was no argument. It was to be played under indoor, 6-a-side rules: penalty boxes, blue cards and all. And virtually none of the players had any experience in it.

Winging It

Beck had only watched a few Tacoma Stars games in the Tacoma Dome. "The extent of our playing indoors was on the gym floor," she explains. "Indoor was fairly new and we found out the night before. We didn't really have (proper) indoor shoes."

"Everybody was winging it," admits Jennings. "They knew they could play it off the boards, but how do you sub people in and out."

None of the teams had adequate equipment or preparation. In that way it was a level playing field.

"I really did not have an objection," Verhees says. It was improvisational, one of those spur of the moment type of things. My motto was to try to adapt quickly and then go for it."

On a frigid Friday night, the four teams slowly maneuvered the slick streets to the soccer center. It was near-freezing inside as well. It served as the Stars' practice field and some recreational leagues; there were scant accommodations for spectators.

Not Everyone's Game

Westmont met Houghton in the opener, with the other teams watching, hoping to make a quick study before taking the field. After surrendering an early goal, Westmont dominated and scored four unanswered goals, winning 4-1.

Verhees said his squad was known for its work ethic. The technique and tactics changed, but by focusing on high energy, effort and execution of the simpler facets of the game, the Warriors prevailed.

While most everyone else looked uncomfortable, Beck had a notion her game would flourish in close quarters. "My ball-control skills were above the other players," she assessed. "Sometimes that disappears on full fields against bigger, stronger teams. But it shined indoors."

Beck didn't allow Wilmington time to settle. She scored twice in the first six minutes, and finished with four plus assists on Shelly Simmons' other two goals in a 6-0 Puget Sound rout. The two most technical sides would meet in the final less than 12 hours later.

In a mid-morning match, the Loggers struck first, but Westmont took a 3-1 lead into the final quarter. Beck scored late but UPS could not equalize. Westmont won the title, 4-2.

Although the Warriors and All-American midfielder Sandra Asimos were deserving champions, it might have been a much different story, 11v11. Defenders who were accustomed to hoofing the ball out of danger were being penalized on three-line violations. Keepers making saves off the boards were facing rapid, point-blank shots on the rebound.

What Might Have Been

"I would have loved to have played that game outside because it would've been a very different flavor," notes Verhees. "But in my opinion, it would've been harder to play Puget Sound outdoor than indoor."

"We were a very fit and strong team, and they had just one superstar (Asimos)," claims Beck, "and on a small field that one superstar was able to take over."

For Jennings, although it was disappointing not to win the trophy, personally there was relief and satisfaction in providing the women a life experience as opposed to, well... nothing.

"It was a crazy long week, and it was more stress than I really needed. I was happy for it to be over," he confesses. "At the end of the day, it's always about the players. At least they have some stories to tell about it. Otherwise it would've been just a silly trip where it was cold and snowy."

An Asterisked, Yet Undiminished Feat

Westmont went home to a series of celebrations, beginning with their airport arrival; their achievement was no less significant. It mattered not how the Warriors won the championship; it might have been on a slushy full field or via penalties. As it turned out, it was through their ability to adapt quickly to a new, 6-a-side offshoot of their sport.

"Whether we would've won or not, it was very interesting," reflects Verhees, who moved on to Cal the following season, leading the Golden Bears to a pair of NCAA semifinals. ‘"Credit to Mike Jennings for stepping up and creating a solution."

It was a scenario and a solution that almost certainly will never be repeated. Thirty years ago, soccer in general and the women's athletics in particular, were struggling to gain a foothold.

"That was at the very beginning of Title IX," Beck points out. She credits the likes of Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and multiple U.S. triumphs in the World Cup and Olympics for bringing about change.

"There are so many other resources now, and women's soccer is treated a lot differently," she adds. "That was a lot of snow, but now they would clear the field."

For Jennings and anyone else who was there, the story of the 1985 NAIA finals is an oddity; something to share with a jaded audience that thought they had heard it all.

"If you look at the record book now, you see the score line and an asterisk," says Jennings. "It's more of a one-off, cocktail story; a unique experience people ask me about. It seems funny now."

"It's got some humor to it," Verhees agrees. "You don't get that much snow around Seattle. There was an innocence to it and a kind of romance to it."

And another thing, he adds. "I don't think it will ever happen again."

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.

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