Distance makes rivalry grow stronger
Unlikely foes Seattle Pacific, Southern Conn. St. make magic
What is it that makes a great rivalry? State lines? Tradition? Longevity? Each rivalry is unique and different, and in the case of the men’s soccer programs at Seattle Pacific and Southern Connecticut State, their great rivalry is made up of just that -- greatness.
Take a look at the NCAA Division II men’s soccer record book and you’ll be hard pressed to find a significant team record that doesn’t begin with or include Seattle Pacific and Southern Connecticut State. Currently, there are four premier NCAA records virtually etched in stone, and each school holds two. Seattle Pacific claims ownership to NCAA records for most consecutive winning seasons (37) and most NCAA finals appearances (10). Meanwhile Southern Connecticut State counters with records for most NCAA national championships (6) and most NCAA tournament appearances (30).
At first glance, Seattle Pacific and Southern Connecticut State seem a pair of unlikely rivals. With 2,931 miles separating their campuses, it’s a wonder the two programs ever met outside of the NCAA tournament. But, with the help of a few legendary coaches, the rivalry grew out of obscurity in the late 1970s, to one that now bolsters a combined 69 consecutive winning seasons, 59 NCAA tournament appearances, and 11 NCAA championship titles.
After finishing the 1970 men’s soccer season with a disappointing 0-7-3 record, Seattle Pacific’s first-year head coach Cliff McCrath often found himself sitting on the “grumpy step”. But his frustration didn’t last long, as over the next 37 seasons, Coach McCrath built and maintained one of the best men’s soccer programs in the country. McCrath focused on recruiting local student-athletes, privately fundraised and would take his team anywhere in order to face a good opponent.
“During that time we were known as the team on the go,” he said. “We went every place, border to border, ocean to ocean, and during that time I found that coach Bob Dikranian was building the foundation for a strong program at Southern Connecticut.”
While Seattle Pacific made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1972, Dikranian’s Southern Connecticut State squad was not far behind, earning a spot in 1976. The two teams first met in the tournament in the 1978 semifinals, with Seattle Pacific moving onto the finals with a 1-0 victory in triple overtime. The following year, Seattle Pacific won another thriller, this time a double-overtime 1-0 game. It would be 11 years before the teams would meet again in the NCAA tournament.
With few big-time programs in the Northwest at the time, and the willingness to travel anywhere McCrath created the annual "Big 4 Tournament". Featuring four of the top soccer programs in the country, Southern Connecticut State, Seattle Pacific, Tampa, and South Carolina Upstate (formerly known as South Carolina-Spartanburg), the Big 4 quickly became known as the best regular season tournament in the country.
“The Big 4 tournament was a great experience for the players and one of the highlights of the season. It was like a pre-final four, those games were to make a statement in college soccer,” remarked former Southern Connecticut State head coach and current University of Connecticut head coach Ray Reid.
During Reid’s tenure, Southern Connecticut State won three championships, the first of which came in 1990.
“In 1990 we were 21-0-1 going into the championship game against Seattle Pacific, our archrival. Cliff had done a great job with the program, and it was a great, hard fought game. It came down to penalty kicks and our guys were just a little bit better,” recalled Reid. “For me to win my first championship against Cliff, it was flattering, because we had really tried to role model ourselves after the success that Seattle Pacific had had.”
Reid and his squad captured another title in 1992, and in '93 found themselves in a familiar situation as another championship showdown with Seattle Pacific awaited.
“It was one of those rivalries where you knew you were always going to get each team’s best game,” said former player and current Seattle Pacific assistant coach Nate Dalicon. True to the back-and-forth nature of the rivalry, Seattle Pacific took the 1993 championship, leaving each team with a lone championship victory over the other.
The coming years saw the emergence of divisional priority on regionalization, and thus the end of the Big 4 tournament. Seattle Pacific and Southern Connecticut haven’t met in the NCAA tournament since 1998, and the rivalry it seems has slowed. However, what remains is an intense mutual respect for one another and a lasting legacy of a truly unique rivalry.
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“It was really like a family reunion. We would see them in the regular season and then in the NCAA tournament, and yet, we were really great competitors and had great games,” remembered McCrath.
Reid had a similar fondness for the rivalry.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the pedigree that I learned at Southern, and competing against the likes of Cliff McCrath year in and year out, he taught me what competition was and he made me strive for excellence.”
Current Seattle Pacific head coach Mark Collings, and Southern Connecticut State head coach Tom Lang now look to write their own chapters in the rivalry. For the players and fans alike, let’s hope the greatness continues and the record books are rewritten once again.
The NCAA Stats at 75 series will be published weekly through May and will include interesting statistical championship stories and all-time great performances.