Most college soccer teams must fight better-established football programs for attendance, money and facilities. But at George Mason University, which does not play football, the lack of competition has paid off handsomely.
The men's and women's soccer programs at George Mason have become among the best in the country. The men's team, which is 16-0 and ranked 10th in the nation, is expected to receive its first NCAA tournament bid this season. The women's team (14-4-1), ranked No. 8, will host Princeton in the first round of the NCAA women's tournament today.
"We're in an area where soccer is a hotbed," said Athletic Director Jack Kvancz. "It's our answer to football. We get students holding parties and tailgating before the games, and we draw about as well as some of the pro teams."
The success of the men's team is due largely to Coach Richard Broad. Since taking over as a part-time coach in 1976, Broad has led the Patriots to a 58-21-12 record. George Mason has been ranked as high as ninth this season, and is the only unbeaten and untied team in the top 20.
"The keys to our success are teamwork, hard work and execution," said Broad. "Individual players are very important to me, but the team comes first. We have some excellent players, players who could play for anybody in the country. But we are very team-oriented."
The Patriots run a tight, short-passing offense, and have outscored their opponents, 50-4, this season. Colin Kerr, a burly forward from Canada by way of Scotland, has scored 33 goals, including an area-high 13 this season. Freshman walk-on Mike Jung has seven goals, and Fred Thompson, one of six players from Canada, has six. Midfielder Adolfo Alvarez, the team's top playmaker, was recently selected in the third round of the Major Indoor Soccer League draft.
Defenders Scott Shiffert and Chris Short and goalkeeper Ken Bernstein have played well. Bernstein has allowed only four goals and his 13 shutouts are a school record.
Although Broad has worked to upgrade George Mason's schedule, the Patriots have played four teams with losing records this season. But solid wins over Old Dominion and William and Mary have given George Mason credibility.
"We really aren't that concerned with the rankings," said Broad, who has added Indiana and possibly several Atlantic Coast Conference teams to next year's schedule. "We don't dwell over them. We try to play a balanced schedule, and we try to play all the top teams in the region."
The rise of the women's team from a club sport in 1981 to a national power a year later is noteworthy, considering its youth. Fourteen freshmen are on the squad, including the entire starting lineup, and there are no seniors. Coach Hank Leung feels the team's lack of experience may be its strength.
"The kids have been very coachable," said Leung, a former assistant coach with the Philadelphia Fury of the North American Soccer League. "They've done everything I've asked of them."
George Mason hasn't fattened its record with easy opponents. The schedule features seven of last year's top 20 teams, including five of the top 10. In addition, the Patriots have played well against the country's top teams, losing, 2-0, to North Carolina in the final of the Washington Area Girls Soccer (WAGS) tournament, and 1-0 to Connecticut on a late penalty kick.
"We've been unusually good," said Sue Collins, the women's athletic director. "We originally wanted to build a national contender within four years. Anything before that is just icing on the cake. If we can get near the top while the sport is still young, it will be much easier to stay there."
The Patriots have outscored their opponents, 68-19, this season, and are led by 12-goal scorer Sheryl Walters, a freshman forward from Mount Vernon High School. Forward Meg Romaine has 10 goals and Cindy Crump, who attended Robinson High School, has seven.
George Mason won't be at full strength for Princeton. Romaine, who has 22 points, will miss the game with a fractured collarbone and eight starters will play injured. Still, Leung doesn't feel his team will be overwhelmed by the tournament competition.
"The team is taking the NCAA's in a very mature way," he said.
"Personnel-wise, there are better teams than us. But I'm not ashamed of my players. We know we have the talent to play with anybody."