The 1981 Keene State College men’s soccer team has gone down in school history as one of the greatest Owl soccer teams ever assembled. It was just the second team to post a 20 win season (20-2-5) and only the third Ron Butcher coached team to be inducted into the KSC Hall of Fame. The star-studded roster had the perfect mix of veteran leadership, rookie enthusiasm and hard-working players who each knew the important roles they all played so unselfishly. The 1981 season was to be the last for Keene in the NAIA and the perennial New England powerhouse was on a mission to return to the National Tournament once again for a shot at the National Championship. They would come within two minutes of making it to the Finals.
According to Butcher the 1981 team had it all. Incredibly strong in the middle, the Owl booters had four All-Americans right up the center from which to build off of. Starting with goalkeeper extraordinaire All-American junior Kyle Dietrich who’s spectacular and often acrobatic saves never failed to electrify the crowd, inspire his teammates, frustrate the opponents and more often than not keep the score sheet blank.
The defense was anchored by the best stopper—by far--in all of New England soccer, regardless of Division, All-American senior captain Ian Wilson who was the heart and soul of the team and always led by example. Thoroughly dominant in the air and ferocious in tackles, no one ever got by him.
The midfield was led by Keene’s “Clown Prince of Soccer”, the speedy, highly skilled and passionate All-American senior Bert “Frenchy” Poirier who’s antics always entertained the fans. If Wilson was the determined, intimidating all-business father-figure, Poirier was the exact opposite. In addition to his amazing dribbling and passing abilities Bert was always able to lighten the team’s mood and calm jittery nerves before big games with perfectly timed jokes and one liners that would rival any comedians—and no one including Coach Butcher and Assistant Coach Pat Ward were immune to his witty zingers!
Up front, the highly potent Owl offense was led by the dynamic goal scoring exploits of All-American sophomore John McCully, the team’s hard-nosed, aggressive leading scorer who was strong enough to hold off defenders and bull his way around the penalty area wreaking havoc on the opposing team.
Coach Butcher had developed a style that dumbfounded teams of all Divisions throughout New England. On defense the Owls would all quickly drop back to midfield and patiently wait for their opponents to come to them—like a spider in its web. Lulled into a false sense of security the opposing teams would fall into Keene’s trap and be immediately attacked as they attempted to enter the Owl’s defensive zone. Rounding out the formidable Owl defense were two hard-hitting wingbacks who terrified opposing attackers. On the left was senior Ted McGahie, a big, burly fullback with a cannon left foot and on the right was junior Kevin Forgeron, a fast, devastating tackler with an equally powerful right foot. Both also had the valuable ability to overlap in attack. On the very rare occasion when the ball got through the Keene defense, sophomore sweeper Jim “Steady” Castelli was there to calmly clear it away from danger.
The secret to Butcher’s style was two-fold; an impenetrable defense followed by lightning quick counterattacks. According to Butcher, “The midfield situation will make or break us.” As soon as the Owls recovered the ball the entire team would open up wide and the attack would usually start with the midfield wingers. Starting at these critical, key positions were two speedy rookie freshman who could run all day. One was the heavily recruited Chris Pangalos, a NSCAA high school All-American from NY, who according to Coach Butcher, “could do it all with the ball, he’s quick, has excellent skills, can read the game with the best of them and has the technical ability to beat any defender in a one-on-one duel.” On the other side was the surprising “Jumping” Joe Bourassa, a high-flying speedster from Hollis High School in Brookline, NH who gave opposing defenders endless trouble with his gazelle-like speed and leaping ability. Both were involved in numerous plays that resulted in KSC goals. Filling out the rest of the field were players like freshman goalkeeper Keith Brown, sophomore defender Mark Babineau, hard-working junior midfielder Steve “Crazy Legs” Farnham and junior forward scoring sensations Chris Morrill and super-sub Mike “Ziggy” Burdick among others.
“We had such a bond between the players and I think we played off of that a lot,” said Dietrich. “Everyone worked together as a team driven for success. That was the whole key.”
The Owls were especially tough at home as games were crowded, fun, social events and loyal fans harassed nervous opposing teams relentlessly. No one will ever forget public address announcer and KSC Hall of Fame basketball player Marcus Debro blasting the team’s theme song, “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross through the speakers as the team crossed the bridge from the gym parking lot leading to the field introducing in his booming voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your Keene State College Soccer Owls!” The fans cheered on their team as they jogged out to take on the competition with the cheering getting louder and louder the closer the team got to the field. The visiting team was always quite intimidated by Keene’s grand entrance and for good reason.
Playing a tough schedule that included the top teams throughout the Northeast, regardless of Division, the Owls recorded 10 shutouts during the regular season and stormed into the NAIA New England Tournament as the top seed posting 1-0 overtime victories against Franklin Pierce and Castleton State in the playoffs. The NAIA New England Championship Game at Keene State’s Sumner Joyce Athletic Field featured the # 1 ranked Owls versus a very tough # 2 ranked Thomas College team from Maine in front of an absolutely packed raucous home crowd that cheered non-stop from start to finish. The exciting, end-to-end action kept the fans on the edge of their seats through the entire game right into sudden death overtime. Finally, just as he did the week before against Castleton when he scored the game-winner in sudden death overtime, the always hard-working Steve Farnham would once again be the hero as he banged home another game-winner into the back of the net for the 3-2 sudden death overtime victory and unleashed pandemonium! Thousands of fans from the college as well as the town rushed the field lifting Farnham and other exhausted players on their shoulders in triumph. Captain Ian Wilson summed it up best when he held aloft the New England Championship trophy that was presented to him saying, “This is for the college staff and students and for the people of Keene” and the crowd went wild.
Next stop for the Owls: Springfield, Illinois—the site of the NAIA National Tournament.
A huge crowd of cheering Keene well-wishers with signs & banners sent off the team bus as they headed to the airport in Boston for the flight out. Played during the Thanksgiving holiday in some of the coldest weather most of the players can ever remember playing in, the Owls were seeded 7th in the 12 team tourney. They overwhelmed Rutgers-Camden 5-2 in the first game and under windy conditions on a field that had to have the snow plowed off of it with bulldozers before they could play tied Rockhurst College 1-1 to advance to the “Final Four.” Leading highly-ranked Alderson-Broaddus College of West Virginia 1-0 throughout most of the semi-final game it looked as if the underdog Keene State College Owls were going to make it to the Finals and have a shot at the National Championship. With time running out, Alderson-Broaddus threw caution to the wind and sent their entire team of international stars forward in a last desperate attack against the upstart, scrappy Americans from Keene. The gamble paid off as they just barely managed to score the tying goal with less than a minute to play in a clumsy, frenzied, scrambled collision of tangled, struggling bodies from both teams in front of the net that the Owl defenders could just not clear in time before it slowly rolled over the goal line. Being so close to victory and having it snatched away at the last minute disappointed the Keene team but did not deject them. The match went into overtime and since the hard-working Owls had been in nine overtimes already that season with no losses they were confident and prepared to do it again. The game’s action-packed, end-to-end drama continued until finally after three heart-stopping, exhausting sudden death overtime periods in which Keene State goalkeeper Kyle Dietrich had the game of his life making one incredible save after another, Alderson-Broaddus’ Jamaican National Team superstar Dennis Hutchinson swarmed by Keene defenders somehow managed to turn and score an amazing goal from an incredibly difficult, almost impossible angle to end the epic confrontation that all the sports media called, “the best game of the entire tournament.” “The winning goal was absolutely beautiful,” said Dietrich. “If you have to get beat . . . that’s the way it should happen. We couldn’t hold our heads down because we played so well. The opportunity was there but unfortunately it just didn’t go our way.” The chance at destiny and a storybook ending to a phenomenal season for the Owls was not to be. “When you have a chance to win it all, a loss like that was a really hard pill to swallow,” said Coach Ron Butcher, remembering the game as if it was played yesterday. “Who knows what could have happened if we would’ve gotten to the Finals.”
In the Consolation Game the Owls would take on The University of Alabama-Huntsville for third place. After a scoreless first half, Ian Wilson got cold cocked early in the second half when he knocked heads with a UAH player and was down for five minutes. With blurry vision and dizziness he had to be helped from the field and was taken to the hospital where x-rays showed that he had fractured his cheek bone under the eye. The injury fired up the Owls and they would go on to score three unanswered goals for a final 3-0 win and third place in the 1981 NAIA National Tournament. After it was all over, the boys from NH had established a new NAIA record and had a few players officially recognized; Chris Pangalos was in the NAIA record books for most corner kicks taken in a National Tournament, defender Ian Wilson and goalkeeper Kyle Dietrich were both named to the All-Tournament Team and finally Kyle Dietrich was named the Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Many of the Owls would go on to further success in future years wearing the KSC uniform and some even had professional and semi-professional careers after graduating but no one on that team would ever forget that special 1981 season when they came so close to bringing that ever elusive National Championship home to Keene, NH.
After the game an emotional Butcher, who would win the Coach of the Year Award, had these words to say about his team. “This was the finest group of gentlemen I’ve ever worked with. This team has nothing to be ashamed of. We gave it everything we had. I love every one of them.”