While Ron Butcher has had his share of great teams during his 30-year career as head coach of the Keene State College men's soccer team, few could match the scrappy determination of his 1977 team, which kicked its way to a 17-5 record and a second-place finish in the national NAIA Tournament.
"In coaching there are special teams," said Butcher. "The 1977 team was a blue collar team. They would do anything for the coaching staff, and we would do anything for them."
A veteran team, the 1977 Owls featured players such as goaltender Thomas "Tad" Delorm and hack Trevor Franklin - both of whom would go on to play professionally - and top scorer Doug Charon. But the loam also owed its success to unsung heroes like Mike Silverman, Vic St, Pierre, and Sig Trocha.
The Owls always played one of the toughest schedules in New England, and the 1977 season was no different. Playing against opponents that included several to Division I and II teams, KSC pulled off its share of upsets, knocking off UMass and the University of Vermont. The Owls never went down without a fight. Even losses, like a 2-1 overtime setback to Southern Connecticut and a 1-0 defeat to New Haven - when KSC hit the post twice in the closing minutes - were hard-fought battles.
Although Keene State fell to rival Plymouth State 1-0 in the New England States Athletic Conference (NESAC) Championship game, the Owls more than redeemed themselves during the NAIA District 5 Tournament. Posting victories against Franklin Pierce and Western New England, the Owls stamped their ticket to the national tournament in Huntsville, Ala., by edging Maine-Portiand-Gorham 1-0 in a thrilling sudden-death overtime match. Their theme song during the tournament was appropriately "Sweet Home Alabama."
But the story of the 1977 season was the national tournament, which took place during the Thanksgiving break. Despite being the top seed in the four-day tournament, Keene State was still an unknown among the NAIA powerhouses. Out to make a name for themselves, the Owls edged Midwestern Texas 1-0 in their opening-round game. Their next opponent was second-ranked Davis & Elkins.
Sharing the same bus to the game with the Davis & Elkins team, the Owls were subjected to a medley of disparaging songs putting down KSC as a team of farmers from New Hampshire.
"I told the guys not to say anything," recalls Butcher. "But as the bus stopped, Franklin got up and announced, 'Gentlemen, make sure you have your shinguards on...there's no way you're winning the game.'
True to their words, the Owls went on to win the 90-minute war on a goal by Franklin. Although they had nothing left for Quincy College in the finals, played during a driving rainstorm, Keene State proved they could play with the best in the country.
"We were just a bunch of hard-working guys who wouldn't back down from anyone," said Delorm, who finished the season with 14 shutouts,
"We were a team made up of players from all walks of life," St. Pierre added, "and blended our soccer skills together for one common goal."