West District soccer title, all-time record at stake Saturday
If you didn't know the story, you wouldn't believe it.
A soccer coach, from Philly by way of Montana and Green Bay, moves to Arizona. He may tell you it was for the opportunity to inaugurate a men's college soccer program in the high desert of a soccer-healthy Southwest. Or for the weather.
When you get down to it, it was probably the allure of living near spring training that inspired the baseball-crazy soccer coach to go West.
But the soccer cover worked, too.
Through sheer determination, impeccably high standards, and a whole lot of winning, Mike Pantalione this Saturday afternoon at Ken Lindley Field in Prescott has an opportunity to break the NJCAA's all-time men's soccer career coaching wins record. And like many of his 534 career wins, it comes with so much on the line.
The Yavapai College Roughriders topped the Pima Aztecs 3-2 last week in the Region 1 semifinals, which moved Pantalione into a tie for the most all-time with former Ulster County, N.Y., head coach George Vizvary, who's 534 wins set the standard since he stepped down after 37 years in 2010.
The milestone achievement, and what Pantalione and longtime associate coach Hugh Bell have done with the Yavapai program, and collegiate soccer in general, is inescapably apparent.
"I mean you can talk about winning the national championship, and that's great. But as many as they've won, they've always been a power in soccer," Willie Watson, former men's soccer head coach at Glendale (1984-2000), which tangled with YC in four consecutive Region 1 championship matches in the early 90s, told the Courier in 2011. "It's just unbelievable. To do what they've done continuously year after year, man ... it's just incredible."
A similar pursuit of excellence is what drove Vizvary during his days on the sideline. The man Pantalione caught with win No. 534 and is aiming to pass with win No. 535 this Saturday spent nearly 40 years coaching the Ulster County Senators in New York, south of Albany. He compiled a 534-163-28 record through 2010, and in 1977 and '78 picked up NJCAA championships along the way.
"He was a great recruiter, very good motivator, certainly knew the game. A great tactician. He would do things that were very unexpected, and for whatever reason they generally came out to be the right decision," Ulster County Dean John Frampton, the college's former athletic director during Vizvary's coaching days, remembered in late October. "I know at one time I saw him pull players off the field and not substitute for them and play down for no good reason other than to motivate his players and suddenly turn around a game."
Long before he was "Coach Viz," Vizvary was a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 1956. He worked for IBM as an engineer for 15 years before he began teaching at Ulster County - where he also established the men's soccer program from scratch. "There was no soccer at that time," Vizvary, now 77, said this past Saturday night via a phone interview just hours before Saturday's classic Yavapai-Phoenix Region 1 Championship. "So all of my soccer experience that I had back in Hungary was just a memory."
With no scholarships and not much recruiting, the Senators took their lumps early. They finally enjoyed their first winning season in 1971, and never had a losing record again through Coach Viz's final season.
Pantalione, meanwhile, inaugurated his own NJCAA men's soccer program in 1989 at Yavapai. Success came freakishly sudden. Yavapai - with a school name few outside the Arizona soccer world could even pronounce - won the first of what would become seven national championships in its 39th-ever game. The Roughriders have played in 13 national championship games in 25 years.
Vizvary's and Pantalione's paths did cross three times over the years. Unsurprisingly perhaps, in the playoffs.
They met head-to-head in 1990, 1991 and 1994. Yavapai won all three meetings, ironically, by the same score, 2-1, including one ('91) on penalty kicks.
This Saturday the Yavapai program will shoot for another national tournament appearance in the West District Championship; a playoff round pitting the Region 1 champ against the Region 9 champ at a predetermined Arizona site. Otero College, out of La Junta, Colo., visits Ken Lindley Field in Prescott for a 2 o'clock afternoon kickoff. It's also Yavapai's last home match of 2013.
In the midst of titles and playoffs is the chance for Pantalione to break away from Vizvary with the all-time record for wins in NJCAA men's soccer history with win No. 535.
"I'm very happy that Mike is able to do that. He is a very good coach and he has quality teams that he puts on the field," Vizvary said, with his heavy Hungarian accent still very much in the room. "It is a very deserving fact for Mike. He is young. He is energetic. Good for him. I am very happy for him."
The drive for unmatched success is a commonality both coaches share. They're both NJCAA Hall of Fame members. They've both coached the same number of All-Americans (52). They're the only two NJCAA men's soccer coaches ever with more than 500 wins.
But, they are different as well.
Pantalione is a professor, archiving past games, cataloging opponents and scouting players with database-like efficiency.
Vizvary? Not so much, even when asked what he remembers most about his final win, No. 534, which set the NJCAA's standard for soccer success.
"I don't remember anything," he laughed. "I did not count (them). I did not go for the record. I did not have any knowledge or inspiration to look at the NJCAA website. I know that I had been winning games, a good many."
There's one more win to go for Pantalione. Only an oft-overlooked rule technicality prevented the Roughriders from 'winning' the match this past Saturday night that got them a shot at a West District Championship. The game went down officially as a tie.
It was a glorious non-win win of sorts that prevented Pantalione from breaking the all-time record. It was a night that, no matter what the rulebook declares, felt like a win. The best non-win in the career of a man who is one win away from winning more than anyone ever has.
"Oh a victory, far and away," Pantalione said Saturday night, when asked if the result felt more like a win or a tie. "It's a team victory. It's just a technicality in the rulebook. But as far as everyone in this traveling party is concerned, this was a victory. And well earned."
The "real" win No. 535 will be even sweeter.