When the NCAA announced its 19-team draw for the 1979 national soccer championship, the overwhelming pretournament favorites were last year's finalists, defending champion San Francisco and runner-up Indiana. Ho hum. However, before anyone could catch up on his Zs, both the Dons and the Hoosiers had been upset and the NCAA tournament had been turned over to a bunch of teams looking for storybook endings to unpromising beginnings. Indeed, the four schools that made it to Tampa for the final showdown last weekend—Penn State, Columbia, Southern Illinois at Edwardsville and Clemson—had an easier time explaining why they shouldn't have gotten that far than how they did.
Neither Penn State nor Columbia had ever been in the final four. The Nittany Lions were the epitome of inexperience, with only one senior and three juniors on their 20-man roster. Still, it was Penn State that had upset Indiana 2-0 in the quarterfinals. And Columbia—which was rated 18th before the season began—seemed about as out of place at an NCAA championship as Albert Einstein at a tag-team wrestling match. Hairsplitters might point out that Columbia has won eight NCAA titles in fencing, but the Lions have never so much as made the NCAA finals in anything else.
Nevertheless, some observers thought that Columbia, which had beaten Hartwick and Rhode Island on the way to Tampa, could give Clemson a tough time in the semis. The Tigers, whose lineup is annually dominated by Nigerians, had been to the final four three times in the last six years but had never won a semifinal game. This year the Tigers had lost one starter to homesickness and had graduated six others, including their all-time leading scorer, Christian Nwokocha. Even though four new Nigerians arrived on the scene this fall, Clemson's primary objective for 1979 was an eighth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title, not a national championship.
It was apparent in its very first game that Clemson wasn't totally destitute when Nwokocha's freshman brother, Nnamdi, set a school record with seven goals in a 14-0 rout of Belmont Abbey. But after that auspicious start, the offense had trouble getting untracked and the defense, traditionally the team's strong point, played poorly. Midway through the year Cleveland State broke the Tigers' 57-game regular-season unbeaten streak with a 2-1 upset.
The Clemson coach, Dr. Ibrahim Ibrahim, an Arab �migr� from Israel who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and is known as "I-squared," views that loss as the turning point in the Tigers' season. Their defense got a big boost the very next game when all-conference Fullback Damian Odoh, who had missed several games with a pulled groin muscle, returned to a starting role. Ibrahim also did some lineup shuffling, and Clemson suddenly went on a tear, recording six straight shutouts to get to Tampa.
Just 5:12 into the semifinal with Columbia, Nwokocha blasted a goal past Goalie John McElaney for a 1-0 Clemson lead. Because the Tigers had won both their previous tournament games by that score, no one would have been surprised if they had settled into a cautious defensive game. Instead they stayed on the attack. Within a four-minute period near the end of the first half Striker Obed Ariri put the game out of reach by scoring twice. When Ariri isn't playing soccer, he is the placekicker for the Tigers' football team, and as soon as the tournament was over last Sunday he began preparing for the Peach Bowl, in which Clemson will meet Baylor.
Columbia finally broke Tiger Goalie John Bruens' shutout string when Striker Steve Charles connected with a perfect 15-yard crossing shot from the right wing. But that just made the score 4-1, which is how the game ended.
That put Clemson in the finals with SIUE, which had beaten Penn State 2-1 earlier in the day. Of the four teams in Tampa last weekend only the Cougars went into the season with lofty hopes. They were ranked No. 2 in the nation in one preseason poll, but before the end of September they had lost two games, tied two more and dropped completely out of the top 20. Their problems started less than three weeks before their first game when Coach Bob Guelker, who won five NCAA championships at St. Louis and a Division II title at SIUE in 1972, underwent a triple bypass in open-heart surgery. When he rejoined the team on a Western trip just two games into the schedule, he was ghostly pale, talked in a whisper and had to be pushed through airports in a wheelchair by his players. The Cougars promptly lost the first two games after his return, the second of them to San Francisco.
Guelker now admits, "The players might have been torn between two leaders. I couldn't exert myself the way I should have. We were playing as individuals instead of as a team. When we tied two games in a row to make our record 6-2-2, our players were fighting among themselves on the field."
Guelker decided to take action. He benched Striker Don Ebert, the team's star, and Midfielder Dave Hummert for a game after the two mouthed off at a team meeting. "Ebert's mouth was the biggest thing going on the field at that time," says Guelker. "He was trying to help but instead he was disrupting some of the players." Guelker then publicly chastised his son Tim, a midfielder, who the rest of the team felt was not being physical enough in his play. He also realigned several players on defense. The Cougars didn't lose another game and reached the semifinals by avenging their loss to San Francisco 4-2.