When you look over a list of NCAA champions in men’s soccer dating back to the first tournament in 1959 (titles were awarded a variety of other ways in the years prior) one school name stands out among all the others.
That’s West Chester University, which was still known as West Chester State College when a group of future physical education teachers and coaches traveled to Saint Louis and put one of only a few dents in a dynasty that is still the highwater mark for college men’s soccer.
Saint Louis won 10 NCAA Tournament titles from 1959-1973. When they hosted West Chester in the 1961 final they were looking for a three-peat. West Chester was into the final four for the third straight time, having lost in the semis in 1959 and 1960 to Saint Louis. After beating Bridgeport 2-0, they advanced to the final for the first and only time in the pre-division days of the NCAA.
Bill Fulk scored the winning goal in the second half that day and Joe Brownholtz tacked on the insurance goal to secure the 2-0 victory and undefeated season for the Rams.
Current men’s soccer head coach Michael Benn was formally introduced to the legacy of the 1961 team shortly after arriving on campus ahead of his first season in 2013. In his office, he found a large banner with the national championship years of 1961 and 1934 listed on it.
His goal since arriving has been to add another year to that banner, something he was 17 minutes away from doing with his team leading Barry University 1-0 in the NCAA Division 2 final in December 2018. Barry found an equalizer and later won the game on a heartbreaking free kick that ended the underdog Rams’ unforgettable run.
Though he’s only met one player from that 1961 team — Indiana coaching legend Jerry Yeagley — Benn has benefited from their legacy both as a player in the coach. His college coach, Dean Koskie at Lehigh, played for Coach Mel Lorback in the late ‘70s.
“I think what really hammers home for me with that 1961 team was Coach Lorback,” Benn said in an interview earlier this week. “Certainly he had his team physically ready to go out and play at a high level for the entirety of a match but he was also able to take any group of individuals and instill in them a belief that against anybody you can go out and be successful.”
Though they didn’t ultimately win it all, there are parallels between that 1961 team and the team Benn coached into the 2018 D2 final. Playing with a team of mostly local players, Benn’s group knocked off team after team of international-heavy programs, advancing past D2 powerhouse Charleston in the third round. Charleston has made the D2 final each of the last six seasons and won it in 2017 and again last fall.
“You look at just the nature of our game and how difficult it is to create points and score goals and you know, on any given day if the better team doesn’t have their shooting boots on or your goalkeeper’s having a blinder anything can happen,” Benn said. “Our game against Charleston is just absolutely a case in point.”
After finally scrapping past Charleston, the Rams were on their way to the final after getting a 2-0 win over Adelphia and coming from behind to beat Cal Poly Pomono in the semi. The momentum carried into the final on a rainy day in Pittsburgh but Barry University were the ones ultimately celebrating at the end of the day that December.
“One of the things I learned from that group is how important the leadership within the group is,” Benn said. “Coaches can stand up and say whatever they want, but it’s certainly more powerful when you have the right people within the group saying the right things.”
While the opportunity to shock the world the way the 1961 West Chester team did no longer exists — the NCAA was split into divisions in 1972 - that team remains the last and still only from the Philadelphia area to win on that stage.