When you think of London, your mind probably conjures up images of Big Ben, dreary weather, and bad teeth. If you go to Castleton State College, it’s time to add the men’s soccer team to your list of imageries. Members of the Spartan men’s soccer team recently embarked on a journey across the pond and into the heartland of their respective sport. Between March 28 and April 7, the team visited London for a truly once in a lifetime experience.
The trip, the first of its kind for any Spartan team, was put together by head Coach John Werner, an experienced overseas traveler. Since 1989, Werner has gone to London seven times with an under-14 soccer team from Arlington, Vt. His first trip to London was with a young soccer squad that included his 13-year-old son, J.K. Now, 19 years later, J.K. is living in London and his father still loves traveling there.
Once in London, the team played three games against collegiate level competition. The first game was against Dartford Football College in which the team prevailed in a 4-1 victory.
“It was really nice to win that first game,” said Werner. “You would hate to go out and lose all three games, so winning that first one really took some pressure of the guys.”
The team then faced Bromley Football Academy. The game ended in a 6-1 loss for the Spartans. In the final game, Castleton held their ground against Redbridge College, but eventually suffered a 2-0 loss.
The Spartans proved to be a tough match for all three of their opponents that had tremendous advantages on the field. The Spartan team was playing its first game since the fall of 2007, while some of the English teams have played close to 40 games in their seasons already. According to Werner, many of the collegiate level soccer teams in London train and practice for two hours every day, year round. NCAA regulations limit Castleton players to a two-and-a-half month training period in the fall.
“Our players are student-athletes,” said Werner. “It’s basically the complete opposite over there. They are more like athlete-students, where soccer is their first priority. We were playing games out of season, so our guys were getting winded pretty easily. They’re never out of season in London.”
he team was also exposed to a passion for the game that is currently absent in American society.
“This was my first time overseas, and its crazy how different things are,” said junior midfielder T.J. Mazza. “You look at the sports page here and you have six or seven different sports. In London, the sports pages had nothing but soccer. It’s like a religion.”
While soccer was the main focal point of the trip, the players were also given the freedom to explore the city. Mazza, a team captain, reminisced about seeing Buckingham Palace and the London Eye, while citing his visit to the Canterbury Cathedral as the best part of his trip.
The team also got a chance to attend two English Premier League games. The first game was Reading versus Blackburn. The second game matched Fulham versus Sunderland. Although most Fulham players were bitter after losing a must win game, Clint Dempsey did come out to meet the Spartan team after the game. Dempsey is an American soccer star and plays midfielder and forward for the United States national team. Werner said that this was a very special experience for him and his players.
Werner also enjoys the fact that the trip included some Castleton soccer alumni. Mark Fleming (class of 1991) and Assistant Coach Paul Story (class of 1992) both traveled across the Atlantic with the team. Another alum, Owen Lewis (class of 1993), currently lives in London and joined the team for a day. Werner said it was exciting to have former players openly engaging with the current players.
“I was really happy and excited that they could join us,” he said. “What a great experience for everyone.”
The team got a little extra bonding time when trying to leave London. They arrived early for their departure flight from Heathrow Airport and had completed the check-in process when they learned that their flight was cancelled. For the next 29 hours, the team was stuck in the airport terminal.
“I said that this was going to be a great bonding experience. Now we are really bonded,” said Werner jokingly.
According to Werner, the players passed time by kicking around a small soccer ball. They were all given their own aluminum foil blankets and winter hats and slept on the hard-surfaced floor.
“I would have killed for at least a carpet,” he said, pointing at the carpet in his office.
Before coming to Castleton in 2004, Werner was the head coach for the Arlington High School soccer team for 31 years. His players at Castleton are grateful for his presence and say he is the person who made their London experience possible.
“The amount of time and organization this trip requires is phenomenal,” said junior goalkeeper Mike Anthony. “You really don’t realize how much work it is until you think about how he [Werner] is responsible for almost 30 people.”
Anthony also commended his coach on his passion for the game and his team.
“The best part about Coach Werner is how much he cares for each player on the team,” he said. “You’re just not going to find a better coach around here.”
Both Werner and his players have a lot to be excited about in 2008. The London trip will not be the last experience for any Spartan soccer player as the team will not be losing anyone to graduation.
Although Werner would love to plan a similar trip for the future, NCAA regulations limit collegiate teams to one international trip every four years. Werner hopes that this trip was an experience that his players will never forget.
“I love to win, that’s just a coaches’ mentality,” he said. “But there is so much more to it than that. I hope the players take something away from this that they will never forget, that they can look back on and remember forever. I think they will all be proud to say that they played soccer for Castleton State College.