To St. Louis boys, especially Catholic St. Louis boys, kicking a soccer ball around is as natural as yanking girls' pigtails. A husky youngster might be asked what parish he belongs to, but more likely he will be asked what parish he plays for. While most of the nation is perfectly content to let soccer superiority rest in Sao Paulo or Liverpool or wherever, the Catholic Youth Council (CYC) in St. Louis sponsors about 447 teams with 20 to 30 players each, in addition to strong Catholic high school squads. The non-Catholics have joined the fun in recent years with public high school teams and playground programs, the biggest of which has more than 100 teams. This tradition started in the early 1800s but picked up around the turn of the century when robust prospective priests played the game as a diversion from seminary studies. After they were ordained they naturally taught soccer to the youths of their churches.
All of this is very handy for St. Louis University, a midtown Jesuit school which, until the NCAA started a national soccer tournament in 1959, was chiefly known in the sports pages as a) the alma mater of All-America Basketball Player Ed Macauley and b) the owner of a strange team nickname—Billikens. (A Billiken is a squat comic figure, not a cross between a billy goat and a pelican.) Today, glutted with home-grown talent, St. Louis U. is known as the country's premier soccer school, winner of four out of the first six NCAA championships and a close contender the other two times. Last Saturday afternoon at Francis Field in St. Louis the Billikens won their fifth title in a close, rough game against Michigan State, a game that was decided by a penalty.
Yes, the opposition was Michigan State, the same populous Big Ten school that is sending an unbeaten football team to the Rose Bowl. The Spartans go for soccer in a big way, as is demonstrated by the fact that four of their best players are graduates of the CYC Leagues in St. Louis. MSU coach Gene Kenney, a red-haired ex-wrestler from the University of Illinois, has enough money in his budget to pay tuition for 10 boys. He has a 4,000-seat soccer field with a scoreboard, healthy turf, good drainage and a press box. ("Nothing in St. Louis like it," he says.) He can entice high school prospects with a magnificent campus that includes five swimming pools in one block and enough lighted tennis courts to supply all of Australia.
With such impressive assets, Kenney should be doing splendidly, and he is—except against St. Louis. Friday night he discussed the St. Louis-Michigan State rivalry. He seldom sleeps well on the eve of a big game, so he was relaxing as best he could in the dark cocktail lounge of the Congress Inn, sipping rum and Coca-Cola. "Once the game starts, I'm all right," he said, speaking in staccato bursts. "I don't go out and hit anybody in the mouth, but I'm a hard loser. This is our 10th year of soccer and we've only lost nine games, seven of them to St. Louis." Twice St. Louis kicked his boys out of the NCAA playoffs with 2-0 victories. Earlier this season St. Louis came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat State 3-2. For a man who places soccer above anything—even fishing trips to the wilds of Canada—such frustration is difficult to endure.
When someone mentioned that poor little St. Louis had no soccer scholarships and no fancy field, Kenney scoffed. "St. Louis will always have great soccer teams," he said. "It's a natural draw."
Earlier Friday, while Kenney hurried around to find a whirlpool bath for some of his athletes, argued in vain to gain admission to Francis Field (owned by Washington U.) and conducted a light workout, St. Louis Coach Bob Guelker took things much easier. He had to give interviews, attend a luncheon with Kenney and pick up jangling telephones, but he seemed calm. Coaching the Billikens is a part-time job for him. He is executive secretary of the CYC, director of the CYC Soccer Association and a partner in a sporting-goods company. He carefully watches promising soccer players from the diaper stage on up through the CYC age-group ranks and has all of those years to prepare the boys for competition at St. Louis U. The antitrust department should investigate him.
One of Guelker's little Friday duties was an interview with Ed Macauley, that All-America basketball legend who is now a TV sports announcer in St. Louis. Macauley, one local Catholic boy who somehow bypassed soccer, feigned good-natured surprise at all the commotion over "this silly game." He woefully admitted his own son played on a crack parish soccer team.
"St. Louis has no soccer scholarships," Guelker confirmed. "The school is in the middle of a big, expansive building program. We may have spoiled our administrators by winning the NCAA the first year without scholarships. But they're generous with the travel budget. This year we flew down to Miami on a charter. Every boy on our team is not only from the state, but they are native-born St. Louis boys. We like to play this game and we don't like to be second-best. We're not bitter about Michigan State taking St. Louis players. We're just glad they can get a free education."
St. Louis U. and Michigan State did not waltz unmolested into the final game of the NCAA tournament. At Fairgrounds Park last Thursday night they had to fight their way past Army and Navy in semifinal games. State played Army in the opener and the Billikens met defending champion Navy in the main event. The night was cold and the lights were dim, but 5,500 spectators jammed the inadequate stands. Others, unable to get seats, lined the field's boundaries. It was a surprisingly large crowd, for even in St. Louis soccer usually is not much of a gate attraction. People play the game but do not necessarily pay to watch others play it. This time they turned out.
The Spartans beat Army 3-1, coasting at the end, and it was just about an all-Missouri show. State's first goal was by Rich Nelke, a sophomore outside left from St. Louis. The assist was credited to stocky Guy Busch, another St. Louis sophomore. Busch himself kicked the other two State goals, his 23rd and 24th of the season, virtually assuring him All-America honors at center forward. Busch was a leading scorer on a CYC team that won the national junior title.
On paper, St. Louis University had a harder chore in playing Navy, unbeaten for two years. The Middies had beaten Guelker's team in the semis last season 2-1; the Billikens remembered they had been pushed around somewhat in that game and came out battling this time. The game was scoreless until the last few seconds of the first quarter when Navy kicked a goal. It was disallowed. The timer had pulled the trigger before the score, but his gun had not fired until he had pulled it the third time. Judging by the ensuing furor, you would have thought somebody had called John Paul Jones a landlubber.
The silent shot sunk Navy's spirits. The only goal the Middies got the rest of the way was one a Billiken defenseman accidentally deflected into his own net. St. Louis won 3-1, led by the tricky mid-field ball-handling of Carl Gentile (pronounced Jen-tilly), a little guy who, if his ears were pointed, could serve as a model for the Billiken symbol. He and a speedy Irishman, Pat McBride, were superb at bringing the ball through opposition kickers. Gentile kicked one of the goals and assisted on the two others.
The slogan for St. Louis thus became "12 in a row and one to go." Coach Guelker had never had an undefeated and untied season despite the four national championships. He did not get very daring in his pregame analysis, dropping such original asides as "this is anybody's game," and "both teams are well-conditioned." Gene Kenney played it cool, too. "It's a pleasure to come to St. Louis," he told a luncheon audience. "It's a great soccer town. It's the best soccer town, I'm sure we all agree." Sweetness and light.
The best soccer town turned up an estimated 8,500 fans at Francis Field, complete with pretty girl cheerleaders dressed in white who did not have much chance to lead cheers because, darn it, the action is continuous in soccer. No nice girl-watching time-outs. Ed Macauley drank a soda pop in the press box and allowed as how he still thought it was a lot of foolishness. There was a bell to be rung, a timer's pistol guaranteed to fire at the first hint of a trigger tug, and soccer-loving priests who remembered their seminary days.
Coach Kenney, whose team had not been allowed on the premises the day before, brought his boys out early to poke around, getting acquainted with a bare spot here, a thick tuft there and a bump over yonder. Then he took them back into the dressing room for a while before bringing them out for good. He hoped they would think they were in familiar surroundings. Kenney has Turks, Ukrainians, New Englanders, Midwesterners and a Jamaican honor student in engineering on his squad. He has to be, and is, a good psychologist.
For this big game Kenney had George Janes from Cincinnati and Detroit playing goalie. Janes was a front liner as a soph and junior but took the goalie job this year to help the team.
The first quarter was scoreless. The Billikens seemed to dominate with their fine short-passing game, again featuring McBride and Gentile, who can do things with their sensitive feet that some basketball guards cannot do with their hands. Michigan State's Guy Busch had a good angle on a free kick but was too high. Twice there was almost a brawl and once the referees, imported from neutral Chicago, brought the ball back to the center of the field because of ungentlemanly conduct by both sides.
St. Louis scored in the second quarter when Gentile booted the ball across the field, and Jay Moore deflected it into the net with his cranium, a heady play especially favored by Moore. But Jay was off side and the score was disallowed. All this time St. Louis' Jack Gilsinn was doing a good job of guarding Guy Busch, who can kick like a mule with either foot.
The game-breaking and, for State, heartbreaking penalty occurred in the third quarter. A Spartan defenseman tripped Pat McBride in the never-never land, the rectangular territory marked outside the goal. This gave St. Louis a penalty kick from 12 yards out, with just the poor goalie, George Janes, facing the kicker. It was as if Jimmy Brown was given the football on the 12 and one poor soul was stationed between him and the goal line. Protecting the 24-foot-by-8-foot goal is next to impossible. Gentile was picked by St. Louis to try the kick and he made it, sneaking it into the left corner beyond the diving Janes's fingertips.
Surprisingly, a State defenseman was called for shoving in the penalty zone just minutes later, but this time Gentile was wide right on the penalty kick. There was no more scoring, although McBride tried a sideways right-footed kick in the last period and hit the right upright.
In the last minute the Spartans were fighting desperately to regain control of the ball so they could get one more try for a tie and thus force the game into overtime. The excitement even got the best of Ed Macauley, who was half out of his press-box chair for most of the fourth quarter. The game almost turned into a full-scale Mississippi riverfront brawl in that wild last minute, but the referees and coaches joined forces and broke it up in time.
"It was a fitting final," said phrase-maker Bob Guelker after the final gun. "Break up the Yankees," yelled some soccer enthusiast (probably Macauley).
Spartan Coach Kenney walked up to Guelker, gave him a perfunctory handshake and turned away quickly, his lips set in a thin, bitter line. He did not growl, "Wait until next year," but he must have been tempted. In 1966 his varsity will be packed with nine boys from St. Louis. Maybe that will be enough at last.