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CORTLAND, N.Y. – Long before Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach were household names, there was the 1980 Cortland State women’s soccer team — a squad that captured the first-ever collegiate national title in the sport.
The Red Dragons’ championship journey reads something like a movie script: an underdog group from upstate New York drives a pair of school vans non-stop across the country to Colorado to play for the first national title in collegiate women’s soccer. Once there, the team from the little-known public college takes down powerhouses that include Harvard and UCLA to win it all.
And now, as the former teammates cheer on the U.S. Women’s National Team’s current quest for a World Cup title, the historic Cortland team is nearing completion of an independent film that explains the importance of the championship run 35 years ago.
“It’s been a journey because originally we thought we’d only tell our story,” said Leslie Archer Kassel ’81, a former fullback on the team who jumpstarted work on the film. “But the story turned into one about the entire sport … something much bigger than us.”
The College, which fielded a women’s soccer team for the first time in the 1920s and elevated the sport to varsity status in 1978, tied Harvard for the Eastern Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (EAIAW) title in 1979. The EAIAW governed women’s athletics before that role was assumed by the NCAA.
A year later, the Cortland team claimed the EAIAW trophy outright. It wasn’t until after that victory that the players learned a national collegiate tournament – a first for women’s soccer – was in the works.
Funding issues nearly prevented head coach Anna Rush’s Red Dragons from making the trip to Colorado. But the long trip proved to be more challenging than the tournament itself, with Cortland plowing through Colorado State and Harvard before taking down UCLA, 5-1, in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) title game.
Archer Kassel, who went on to coach soccer and teach physical education and health in the North Colonie Central School District near Albany, N.Y., recently chatted about the team’s historic season and plans for the film, which includes interviews with Abby Wambach and legendary University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance.
When did you know it was time to tell the story of the 1980 team?
“We’ve been talking about it for a long time because we never recorded the history of what we accomplished. We’d have our alumni game every so often and there was a pretty regular crew coming back … Every time we got together, we’d say, ‘We’ve got to tell our story.’ But we were all so busy coaching and raising our kids. Life just took over …
“In the fall of 2013, I was forced to take a medical leave from school and I had this time where I wasn’t allowed to do much. I thought, ‘This is our time.’ … I ended up finding the time to put enough together to get everyone excited …
“Then last July, we got our crew together and made it down to the (C-Club) Hall of Fame Room. The Athletics Department was really good about allowing us the space to film. Joe Caldarone, who’s pretty well known around here (in New York state’s Capital Region), has his own company, InIt II WinIt Productions, and he’s our film guy …
“So each girl sat down for an interview and had the opportunity to tell her story. And that was the beginning. It was really cool, and it got better with time.”
So did you enter the season with high expectations? Did you know there was a chance to compete for a national title?
“There was no talk of a national title. Walking off the pitch after winning the EAIAW title, after beating UConn, 5-1, we went home thinking we were done. Then (head coach) Anna Rush and (assistant coach) Ron Hansen called us back in. They said, ‘We’ve got good news and we’ve got bad news.’ They said, ‘The good news is we’ve been invited to play for the first-ever women’s championship; the bad news is that we’ve got no money.’ That was the first time we had ever talked about it. Then two days later … we’re riding the excitement and headed to Colorado.”
And what was that trip like?
“It was 40 hours and we drove through the night. I think it took us two days. We can’t remember sleeping anywhere; we just remember taking night shifts. It was crazy. We had an envelope of cash, a CB radio … You just can’t make this stuff up …
“And we couldn’t cash the check that gave us funds for the trip, so Anna Rush’s husband, who had a carpet business at the time, had to give us cash upfront to take with us … He also gave us carpet tiles because the floors of the vans were metal and there was no heat. We had to lay them on the floor so we could sleep on them on the way to Colorado. A lot of funny little things like that happened along the way.”
Luckily, you made it to the tournament and then dominated it, correct?
“We ended up playing three games pretty immediately after we got out there … There ended up being seven teams, with UCLA getting a bye in the first round. I think we pulled in late Thursday night and then played at 12:30 in the afternoon the next day. We beat Colorado State and Harvard, our nemesis, each 3-0. Then we got into the finals and beat UCLA, 5-1 … It was insane.”
Did you know at that moment how big it was?
“Absolutely not. You don’t know the impact on the game until years later. We showered, changed and got right in the van to come back to school. We ordered pizza and drove all the way back to Cortland. And it’s funny … We ended up getting pulled over on (Interstate 81) during a snowstorm … It actually turned out to be a police escort back to campus arranged by the town. There was a big band at Park Center. We had a reception. It was just a lot of fun.”
Something else that’s truly impressive: the magnitude of some of the names you’ve interviewed. Where did the Abby Wambach connection come from?
“The sports world is a small one … Joanie Schockow, who was our four-time All-American and now coaches at Brockport, coached Abby during her (Olympic Development Program) years in Rochester. She’ll tell you how difficult it was to coach Abby because she was so good and maintained such a presence on the field …
“Anyway, the weekend we filmed at Cortland, Joanie ended up going back to Rochester to grab a meal with friends. Abby’s team had just finished playing a friendly in Rochester and they ran into each other that afternoon. Joanie asked her to be in the documentary and she agreed without hesitation. It was really fun.”
So where does the documentary stand now?
“We really want this to be a good product, so we’re aiming for an hour-long documentary. We’re not quite sure how we’re going to release it …
“But it’s been great because we’ve been able to interview people like Abby, (Harvard Athletic Director) Bob Scalise and (University of North Carolina head coach) Anson Dorrance … We got Anson Dorrance at a hotel when his team was in town for a game against Syracuse. He was the one who said it’s the women’s collegiate game that has changed the face of women’s soccer in the world …
“So with the documentary, we have all the pieces — hours and hours of film … We’re just re-writing a little bit to re-work it into our story. Unfortunately, we have no footage from those days. Who would’ve filmed it? But we do have a lot of great pictures and scrapbooks, so that’s good …
“How do you know the impact of something when it’s the first thing? In our minds, it was just exciting knowing we were the best in the country.”