Barry Shufelt remembers when, as he puts it, “there was nothing here.”
No soccer, that is.
That was long, long ago, of course, long before the success of Poland Central School soccer teams coached by Shufelt helped put this otherwise sleepy little Kuyahoora Valley village on the map.
The small town and its people, many of them former players, have been proudly basking in the school’s soccer glory ever since, but never more so than now — now that both Poland boys and girls are on the verge of winning a Class D state championship.
When it comes to soccer, a state title is the only thing Poland’s Tornadoes have not won.
“The fact that little, tiny Poland could do this, that’s what drives the kids and drives parents to drive their kids,” said Paul Cavano, a 59-year-old retired Poland teacher and coach who, like so many others, has a blue and orange flag flying in front of his North Main Street home.
“Soccer is it here,” he said. “The other sports are important, but soccer has the tradition. It’s been around the longest and the success has been ongoing.”
Both teams enter Saturday’s state semifinals ranked second in the state’s Class D polls — the boys are 17-0-4 and playing top-ranked Chazy (19-0-1) at 12:30 p.m. in Middletown while the girls are 19-1-0 and playing third-ranked Jasper-Troupsburg (16-4) at 2:30 p.m. at Homer High School.
The championship matches are Sunday.
Scholastic soccer success this fall is not limited to Poland.
The Tornadoes are two of the four area teams at the state final four this weekend. The others are the Proctor boys from Utica and the Sauquoit Valley girls.
But there’s something different about the small-town soccer tradition in Poland.
“Yeah, it’s a big deal here,” said Bill Weakley, a 1976 Poland graduate and former bench warmer on one of Shufelt’s soccer teams.
Yes, thanks in large part to Shufelt — “He is Poland soccer,” said Bill Wenzel, another former player — almost everybody has a rooting interest in one or both of these teams.
“This is our thing. From 8 to 80, everybody’s on the same train,” said Wenzel, 49, a local contractor and father of Bryce Wenzel, a junior on the team. “It doesn’t cost you much, just a pair of cleats, a couple nets and some attitude, and away you go.”
When Shufelt, a 73-year-old Remsen native and former Ithaca College soccer star, came to Poland Central as a physical education instructor in 1960, he and athletic director Howard Chaffee helped get the program started.
In his 34 years as soccer coach, Shufelt’s boys teams won 361 games, 13 league titles and four Section III championships.
Page 2 of 3 - “It didn’t happen overnight,” he said. “But the kids really took to it, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. The type of kid we have has a lot to do with it, and most people here played soccer so the community understands the game and follows it.
“It’s an honor to be a part of it, but it is these kids’ world now. It’s their time to ring the ball. We had our day.”
Former goalkeeper Dave Dexter’s “day” included back-to-back trips to the state championship game in 1983-84 — Poland lost to Long Island’s Southold each year — and his wife, Lora (Dutcher) Dexter, was a member of a Poland girls team that played in the regionals. Their daughter Karlie played a few years ago, and now their son Austin is a senior defender on the boys team.
“This comes out every soccer season. It keeps me young,” Dave Dexter, a 45-year-old town of Norway highway department worker, said Wednesday, while leafing through a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and photographs of his glory days. “Soccer has been in our blood for years. It’s in our veins. This is something I will never forget and it’s something (Austin) will never forget. This is big for all of these kids. I loved it and they’re going to love it.”
“It feels good to be going there, where he was,” Austin Dexter said during Wednesday’s practice. “Now, we will both have that to share, and to win a state championship and do something my dad wasn’t able to do would be great.”
Greg Haver, the homegrown coach of the boys team — he graduated in 1990 after playing two varsity seasons for Shufelt — returned to replace his legendary mentor 17 years ago.
Haver’s teams have come close to winning that first state title, losing to Chazy in the Class D final in 2005 and 2007. His assistant coach, Jason Potempa, played for the Tornadoes in 1998, the first time Poland’s boys and girls reached the state final four.
The girls lost to Ellicottville 1-0 in the finals and the boys lost to the eventual champion, Rochester’s Northstar Christian, 2-1 in overtime in the semifinals.
“You get goose bumps just thinking about it,” said Tom Basel, a transplant from Endicott who has coached the Poland girls’ team since 1997. “We’ve been knocking on the door. Hopefully, this will be the year.”
“Barry got the ball rolling, he had some success, and kids want to play and do well because the last group did,” said Haver. “It’s a soccer community. Everybody is involved somehow. People have been tied into it, in some way, for years and years and years.
“We’re just a small town, we don’t have that much entertainment, so this is kind of what we do here.”
Page 3 of 3 - And it shows. Every season, the streets are lined with signs shaped and painted like soccer balls — complete with each player’s name and number — nailed to telephone poles. It’s another tradition started years ago by the late Janine Walker, an art teacher at the school.
“The fans here are great,” said Hannah Mahoney, a senior member of the girls team. “There’s not one person who isn’t supporting us. We’re like a family, and we’re making history.”