Sam Koch meets with his team every year in early August in room 269 of Boyden Gymnasium at the University of Massachusetts to signal the start of training camp. The routine is simple: lay down the team’s goals and ground rules for the season, while also giving the returning players an opportunity to get acquainted with the newcomers.
As soon as the players opened that classroom door, however, they quickly realized this year’s meeting would be anything but routine.
The University of Massachusetts men’s soccer coach sat at the head of the classroom in front of 36-roster hopefuls, the team trainer, and three to four other adults, none of whom were recognizable even by the returners.
Koch looked terrible. His face was burnt, his right eye was covered with a bandaged eye patch, and his weight had gone down considerably since the last time his team had seen him.
“That was a really hard meeting to have," said UMass soccer trainer Bob Kuzmeski. “A lot of people saying what’s going on, there was a lot of confusion and trepidation.”
He began his speech with a joke, in typical Sam Koch fashion, confessing to his team that, no, he was in fact not Jack Sparrow, but was indeed dealing with a very serious illness, cancer of the sinus cavity.
The team looked around at each other staggered by what they had just heard, almost looking to one another in assurance that what they were hearing wasn’t true.
"I looked around the room and there were blank stares,” said co-captain Dominick Skrajewski. “I don’t think anyone had a reaction just because it was such big news, and there were so many questions going through everyone’s heads.”
As Koch went on, he spoke upon the severity of his illness, admitting to his team that although he would try to make every practice, it was something that was just unrealistic, as he would be traveling to Boston five days a week for chemotherapy. The unrecognizable man behind him, Koch pointed out, would serve as the team’s interim head coach, whenever he wasn’t around.
That man was Devin O’Neill.
The new assistant coach, who had spent the previous two years at Bradley University, had decided to come home to his native western Massachusetts to join the Minutemen.
A glance around the room would show a handful of players with tears in their eyes. The team was aware that no matter how much their coach pleaded, there would be a limited amount of Koch appearances during the season, while the man filling in for him would be a new face as well.
Sam Koch’s squad new they were in for an uphill battle, just as their coach was.
“We came out of that meeting with all sorts of ideas, emotions and goals for the season,” said co-captain Brett Canepa. “As a team, we knew we couldn't start off the way the program had in the past few years. We had a coach who was fighting for his life, and we had to play in a way that supported that.”
Sam Koch has been head coach of the Minutemen for 21 seasons, this past season’s cancer-ridden campaign being his 22nd. Entering this year, Koch had already established himself as the all-time winingest coach in UMass history with 209 wins, compiling a 213-157-46 record in his 21 years in Amherst. He is a four-time Atlantic-10 Coach of the Year recipient, while also leading his teams to 11 A-10 Conference tournaments and two conference championships.
His most impressive accomplishment came in 2007 when the Minutemen reached the College Cup, eventually losing in the Final Four to the Ohio State Buckeyes, 1-0.
With all the accolades that Koch has compiled over his career, one might expect him to be a coach that’s all about winning. Although winning is certainly at the top of his list, it isn’t the only thing that defines the head coach.
“He’s probably one of the funniest guys that I’ve met and have had the pleasure of knowing and working with. He has a story for everything,” said Kuzmeski.
The athletic trainer is in his 11th year at UMass, and second working with the men’s soccer team. His relationship with Koch is one that stems back even farther than their days working as colleagues at UMass together, as the two have been neighbors for 17 years in Haldey, just outside of Amherst.
The strong bond between trainer and coach, friend and friend, may have even strengthened this past fall, as it was Kuzmeski who drove Koch to and from practice each day.
“That was just a great time just to talk with him, talk soccer a little bit,” said Kuzmeski. “Sometimes we would talk about his family or my family, and how much his family really means to him, and how they all interact. It was really special.”
As the days went on, and the car rides began to pile up, Kuzmeski began to realize just how much Koch loves being on the field with his team, coaching the game that is so dear to his heart.
“I’d comment to him after practice,” said Kuzmeski, ‘Boy, you were really on fire today,’ with some of the things he was saying- and they were just funny one-liners. He’s thankful for it.”
But although Koch was doing his best to attend practice, missing just three practices in an eight-week span, where driving back and forth to practice from chemotherapy in Boston became a daily routine, the team was struggling.
After jumping out to a 2-0-1 start early on in the season, the Minutemen quickly fell off the map, eventually losing 11 of their final 15 matches. If it was ever a question, it was now certain that Koch’s illness had affected the team.
“They seemed a little distracted by the whole thing, some guys a little bit more than others, especially the older players,” said Kuzmeski. “They’ve been much more aware of his absence in really those few times that he hasn’t really been at practice. There’s been a level of distraction that I haven’t seen in years past.”
Canepa, the moral leader of the Minutemen, knew the season would be tough, but tried to use Koch’s illness as motivation for the young group, one that accounted for 14 freshmen.
“It pushed the team to work hard day-in and day-out, and to get absolutely everything out of a training session that was possible,” said Canepa. “We realized it would only help make coach happier to know our dedication was going to be there everyday at practice.”
But the team spiraled despite a fast start and leadership from Skrajewski and Canepa. One factor that may have contributed to the Minutemen’s lulls was the fact that the team did have those 14 new faces on the roster. Coming off of a lackluster 4-13-2 campaign the previous year in 2011, Koch looked to overhaul a senior-heavy roster, in hopes of rebuilding for the future.
With Koch’s illness serving as a major distraction, however, a rebuilding year with an unusually high amount of freshmen seemed demanding to say the least.
A normal college freshman is dealt with a number of different things to cope with when making the transition from high school. Not only are freshmen in an entirely new environment surrounded by thousands of people they don’t know, but also, going to class is no longer something that is forced upon them by a parent or guardian.
“Obviously it’s definitely challenging when you come in that first semester because everything has changed for you,” said University of Massachusetts academic counselor, Pete Montague. “You know, new academic environment, new social environment, not eating mom’s home cooking anymore. Everything has changed and then you throw in athletics on top of that.”
Freshman, Will Ellis, witnessed that tough transition this fall, as the midfielder has come all the way from scorching Arizona, to the much colder and unpredictable climate of New England.
“The biggest adjustment has honestly been the weather,” said Ellis. “I’m not used to not seeing the sun for days at a time and it can get really gloomy. I never thought that it could effect my mood but it makes me miss home sometimes.”
While the weather may have affected his mood, it had no bearing on Ellis’ schoolwork, as he did not want to invoke any more hardships on his coach’s behalf.
“Academically, I didn't want to give him anything else to worry about so I made sure to get all my study hours in, and do my best to get that 3.0 that he always talks about.”
When incoming freshman arrive on the campus of UMass, Koch makes it a point to instill his morals of dedication, commitment and self-belief in his all of his players to ensure that they understand that nothing is taken for granted.
Tony Bassett, a former player and assistant coach under Koch, now at the University New Hampshire, knows this better than anyone.
“UMass Soccer is a place where previous achievements and awards mean absolutely nothing and a freshman player has to earn every ounce of respect that he desires on the field in his performances,” said Bassett.
Added Ellis, “Koch wants all of us to succeed on and off the field. He is the type of coach that cares about his players more than most would. He loves this school and he believes in the program.”
UMass soccer, however, is somewhat of a different animal when it comes to college athletics. One of the least funded soccer programs in the country, Koch has done a remarkable job in being forced to recruit at the Division 1 level with minimal resources, all while staying relevant for the better part of 20 years in NCAA soccer.
“There’s been some remarkable accomplishments, especially given all the limitations that we are all well aware of,” said assistant coach, Devin O’Neill. “I was aware, obviously, of the success that the program has had, 2007 was an exceptional year.”
While 2007 was for certain an unequivocal accomplishment for a poorly funded program such as UMass; it does not make up for the past four seasons in which the team has failed to reach their conference tournament.
“On a positive side, this program has a passionate alumni following; people really care about UMass soccer. They resurrected it when it was dropped, briefly, 20-something years ago,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill, a West Springfield native was well aware of the tradition before deciding to accept Koch’s offer as assistant coach this past June.
O’Neill remembers his parents becoming avid supporters of UMass athletics, when he, the youngest child of the family, graduated college and his parents no longer had anyone to root for.
John Calipari’s reign in Amherst in the early 1990’s cemented the O’Neill’s support as a new level of prominence both locally and nationally emerged on the campus of UMass with the university’s basketball team.
“Wherever UMass was playing, they were there,” said O’Neill. “It meant a lot to them, and really gave them something to buy into, support and fill the void in their life. For that reason UMass has been special.”
The support of the community for the UMass basketball team back in the nineties is something that O’Neill wants to bring back to Amherst, only this time, for the university’s soccer program.
It's a tall task, concerning the fact that just recently, UMass football has made the jump from the Division IAA to Division IA, as the university hopes to reap the financial benefits of having a Division I football team.
With all the potential benefits, however, come major risks, risks that may put the athletic department in a financial hole for years.
“Universities that want to sponsor football in a significant way, most of the time have real issues as it relates to Title IX, funding, and all of those things,” said O’Neill.
As it relates to college athletics, Title IX states that universities must comply with the law in three areas pertaining to equality in men’s and women’s sports: athletic financial assistance, accommodation of athletic interests and abilities, and other program areas including traveling and equipment benefits, according to Dr. Mary Curtis and Dr. Christine H.B. Grant of the University of Iowa.
O’Neill has experienced issues with Title IX, first hand, as he has coached at two schools of which both soccer team’s were terminated because of the issue.
“Department wide, it’s an interesting transition for UMass, trying to go big- time football,” said O’Neill. “That’s a big risk with a potential big benefit, but that’s the unknown, that’s the unforeseen thing. Access to dollars and resources are limited.”
With all things considered, the road back to the top for the UMass soccer program will not be an easy one. It’s a goal, however, that O’Neill knows he can accomplish after watching Koch battle through cancer this past fall.
“I feel a real sense of responsibility to try to just get the program back to where it should be, to being really competitive, and being a program that we can all be proud of,” said O’Neill. “I think we can do that, but it’s not going to be an easy deal.”
“It was amazing what (Koch) was able to do,” added O’Neill. “I think a lot of people would have packed it up for the fall, and just focused totally on getting better.”
Those who know the Minuteman head coach best, however, knew that was never an option. Being on the field for Koch was a chance to get his mind off of his battle with cancer, a chance to get away from it all, even it was just for a two-hour practice.
“It’s really a testament to how much he wants to give to the guys as players, and be there and teach the game of soccer, about life and everything else that goes along with it,” said Kuzmeski.
The 2012 campaign for the Minutemen should not merely be assessed in terms of wins and losses, but rather by what a team and a coach endured over the course of a four-month span. While it was not a season marked by come-from-behind wins and highlight reel finishes, it was one that defined the true definition of a team, surely a step in the right direction for the UMass men’s soccer program.