To St. Louis boys, especially Catholic St. Louis boys, kicking a soccer ball around is as natural as yanking girls' pigtails. A husky youngster might be asked what parish he belongs to, but more likely he will be asked what parish he plays for. While most of the nation is perfectly content to let soccer superiority rest in Sao Paulo or Liverpool or wherever, the Catholic Youth Council (CYC) in St. Louis sponsors about 447 teams with 20 to 30 players each, in addition to strong Catholic high school squads. The non-Catholics have joined the fun in recent years with public high school teams and playground programs, the biggest of which has more than 100 teams. This tradition started in the early 1800s but picked up around the turn of the century when robust prospective priests played the game as a diversion from seminary studies. After they were ordained they naturally taught soccer to the youths of their churches.
All of this is very handy for St. Louis University, a midtown Jesuit school which, until the NCAA started a national soccer tournament in 1959, was chiefly known in the sports pages as a) the alma mater of All-America Basketball Player Ed Macauley and b) the owner of a strange team nickname—Billikens. (A Billiken is a squat comic figure, not a cross between a billy goat and a pelican.) Today, glutted with home-grown talent, St. Louis U. is known as the country's premier soccer school, winner of four out of the first six NCAA championships and a close contender the other two times. Last Saturday afternoon at Francis Field in St. Louis the Billikens won their fifth title in a close, rough game against Michigan State, a game that was decided by a penalty.
Yes, the opposition was Michigan State, the same populous Big Ten school that is sending an unbeaten football team to the Rose Bowl. The Spartans go for soccer in a big way, as is demonstrated by the fact that four of their best players are graduates of the CYC Leagues in St. Louis. MSU coach Gene Kenney, a red-haired ex-wrestler from the University of Illinois, has enough money in his budget to pay tuition for 10 boys. He has a 4,000-seat soccer field with a scoreboard, healthy turf, good drainage and a press box. ("Nothing in St. Louis like it," he says.) He can entice high school prospects with a magnificent campus that includes five swimming pools in one block and enough lighted tennis courts to supply all of Australia.
With such impressive assets, Kenney should be doing splendidly, and he is—except against St. Louis. Friday night he discussed the St. Louis-Michigan State rivalry. He seldom sleeps well on the eve of a big game, so he was relaxing as best he could in the dark cocktail lounge of the Congress Inn, sipping rum and Coca-Cola. "Once the game starts, I'm all right," he said, speaking in staccato bursts. "I don't go out and hit anybody in the mouth, but I'm a hard loser. This is our 10th year of soccer and we've only lost nine games, seven of them to St. Louis." Twice St. Louis kicked his boys out of the NCAA playoffs with 2-0 victories. Earlier this season St. Louis came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat State 3-2. For a man who places soccer above anything—even fishing trips to the wilds of Canada—such frustration is difficult to endure.
When someone mentioned that poor little St. Louis had no soccer scholarships and no fancy field, Kenney scoffed. " St. Louis will always have great soccer teams," he said. "It's a natural draw."
Earlier Friday, while Kenney hurried around to find a whirlpool bath for some of his athletes, argued in vain to gain admission to Francis Field (owned by Washington U.) and conducted a light workout, St. Louis Coach Bob Guelker took things much easier. He had to give interviews, attend a luncheon with Kenney and pick up jangling telephones, but he seemed calm. Coaching the Billikens is a part-time job for him. He is executive secretary of the CYC, director of the CYC Soccer Association and a partner in a sporting-goods company. He carefully watches promising soccer players from the diaper stage on up through the CYC age-group ranks and has all of those years to prepare the boys for competition at St. Louis U. The antitrust department should investigate him.
One of Guelker's little Friday duties was an interview with Ed Macauley, that All-America basketball legend who is now a TV sports announcer in St. Louis. Macauley, one local Catholic boy who somehow bypassed soccer, feigned good-natured surprise at all the commotion over "this silly game." He woefully admitted his own son played on a crack parish soccer team.
" St. Louis has no soccer scholarships," Guelker confirmed. "The school is in the middle of a big, expansive building program. We may have spoiled our administrators by winning the NCAA the first year without scholarships. But they're generous with the travel budget. This year we flew down to Miami on a charter. Every boy on our team is not only from the state, but they are native-born St. Louis boys. We like to play this game and we don't like to be second-best. We're not bitter about Michigan State taking St. Louis players. We're just glad they can get a free education."
St. Louis U. and Michigan State did not waltz unmolested into the final game of the NCAA tournament. At Fairgrounds Park last Thursday night they had to fight their way past Army and Navy in semifinal games. State played Army in the opener and the Billikens met defending champion Navy in the main event. The night was cold and the lights were dim, but 5,500 spectators jammed the inadequate stands. Others, unable to get seats, lined the field's boundaries. It was a surprisingly large crowd, for even in St. Louis soccer usually is not much of a gate attraction. People play the game but do not necessarily pay to watch others play it. This time they turned out.
The Spartans beat Army 3-1, coasting at the end, and it was just about an all-Missouri show. State's first goal was by Rich Nelke, a sophomore outside left from St. Louis. The assist was credited to stocky Guy Busch, another St. Louis sophomore. Busch himself kicked the other two State goals, his 23rd and 24th of the season, virtually assuring him All-America honors at center forward. Busch was a leading scorer on a CYC team that won the national junior title.