Hokies' First College Cup a Foreign Concept

Charlie Campbell (10) celebrated with Scott Dillie (22), Georg Zehender (3) and James Gilson against Cal on Nov. 28.
Charlie Campbell (10) celebrated with Scott Dillie (22), Georg Zehender (3) and James Gilson against Cal on Nov. 28. (By Matt Gentry -- Roanoke Times Via Associated Press)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Oliver Weiss could have been on a plane to Ghana this Sunday night. He looked forward to the tropical climate, eating the Ghanaian food he "cherishes" and watching two soccer players he's trying to recruit to Virginia Tech.

"It would have been nice," Weiss said Tuesday afternoon in his office, a half-eaten submarine sandwich on his desk. "But no, this is better."

Weiss has postponed his recruiting trip for a reason no one, except the players inside Virginia Tech's diverse locker room, saw coming. On Friday, the Hokies will play in the first men's College Cup in program history, the culmination of what Weiss has been building since he arrived in 2002. The Hokies, a team made with Weiss's vision and an international flavor, will head to Cary, N.C., two victories away from claiming the first team national championship in Virginia Tech history.

Before Weiss arrived, Virginia Tech never had advanced to the NCAA tournament. When midfielder Ben Nason came to Virginia Tech from Stafford on a recruiting visit during Weiss's first season, he sat on makeshift bleachers with barely any fans surrounding him. Afterward, Weiss showed him a cardboard cutout of what the new practice field and bleachers would look like. He told Nason that Virginia Tech would compete for championships.

"Everything became a reality," Nason said.

It began with Weiss's tireless recruiting, as he pounced on talent other coaches overlooked. He watches every tape sent by high school players, no matter how obscure.

Weiss tried landing the best players from Virginia, but "they don't want to come here," he said. He watched them head off to Brown, Stanford, Northwestern or Virginia. He brought in players from Pennsylvania and Georgia, but he needed more. Born in Germany, Weiss used contacts overseas to recruit international players.

"If we don't find quite the player we need, we'll go one step further," Weiss said. "That started when I got here. There was no interest. Not even the average player in America wanted to come here. So we had to get a jump-start. Now it's not just a jump-start. It's an integral part of our program."

One of Virginia Tech's turning points came when Weiss gave a scholarship to Patrick Nyarko of Ghana. Nyarko, a junior, has scored 31 goals in his career, including seven this season, and he has made the all-ACC first team three times. His impact stretches beyond statistics, Weiss believes, because his skill persuades other top players to come play with him.

"He's the most incredible player I've ever coached," Weiss said. "He has something that is so hard to attain: the skill of beating somebody one versus one. He does it effortlessly in a way that is almost ridiculing the player, but still paying respect because he doesn't do anything except want to beat him. That is an art everybody pays millions of dollars to see. To come up with a way of playing that is so enriching to the soul of the passionate fan, you can't help to fall in love with this guy."

This year, four foreign players came to Virginia Tech for only one season. Goalie Markus Aigner, forward Stefan Hock and defender-midfielder Georg Zehender arrived from Germany, and forward Robert Edmans came from England.

Weiss will continue to recruit foreign players, in part because of the cultural impact. One player told Weiss he learned more from spending 15 minutes each day with foreign teammates in the locker room than he did in the rest of his college career.

"They'll leave something," Weiss said. "That's really special."

Zehender struggled with English, but improved with help from his American teammates. The exchange created close team chemistry, one of the reasons Weiss believes the Hokies improved this season. After the Hokies upset Connecticut last weekend, players flung mud at one another in the middle of the field.

"It's weird for us foreigners because most of the players are under 21," said Hock, who will turn 24 next month. "The celebrating is different in Europe, do you know what I mean?"

As the College Cup approaches, Weiss has had no time to reflect on how far the Hokies have come. Next week, Weiss has another trip planned, to tour the museums in Washington with his wife and children.

"I'll be sitting on a park bench, drinking my latte," Weiss said. "And maybe then I'll say, 'We did all right.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company