Blackburn soccer has long standing tradition

By Tom Emery

CARLINVILLE (June 28, 2018) – At Blackburn College, there are differing opinions on which sport has the longest tradition, or means the most to the school. Many older alums believe that sport is soccer.

Soccer dates to the 1954-55 academic year, when the Blackburn men’s team won a pair of games over Greenville College. In that first season, the games were played in the spring, and since the number of varsity sports at Blackburn was so limited, the program quickly caught on. The Blackburnian reported that the school’s “fabulous soccer team” had a chance to “go undefeated” in a two-game schedule.

Greenville was the opponent in the first seven games in program history, and Blackburn went 6-1 against their nearby rivals. In the sixty years since, the Beavers have played, and beaten, Greenville more than any other school.

The first few years of Blackburn soccer consisted of several games a year, a schedule that grew as time went by. Hans Proft set a school record by hammering home seven goals in a season-opening 8-0 win over Covenant on Sept. 29, 1962, and the young program reached a pinnacle in 1964, going 5-1-1 and capturing the first of eight Prairie College Conference titles in school history.

From 1968-72, the Beavers were at their best, going 43-16-4 in that span and capturing three straight PCC titles from 1968-70. They added another in 1972. Some of the games were lopsided affairs, including a 12-0 win over Rockford on Sept. 24, 1971 in which Blackburn held a 53-1 advantage on shots.

The era was highlighted by the brilliant Tom Beaver, who scored 68 goals and 176 points from 1968-71. Both remain school records. Wasiu Odofin, who knocked home 25 goals and a program-best 61 points in 1970 and added 26 more goals the following year. In net, Ralph Jones recorded five shutouts in both 1970 and 1971 on the way to seventeen career clean sheets, which ties a school record with Tony Bauer, who played from 1972-75. The 1972 team ripped off a school-best eight straight shutouts.

More PCC titles followed in 1975 and 1977, but the program was starting to decline. Still, the early 1980s produced some of the greatest highlights in school history, including two National Small College Athletic Association championships. Blackburn was given the opportunity to host the 1981 nationals, and the Beavers responded with a 4-0 win over St. John’s in the semifinals. They followed with a 3-0 win over Warren Wilson, N.C., a fellow work program school, on Nov. 7, 1981 to take the title.

The Beavers then collected their second national title in three years at York, Neb. in 1983. Blackburn pounded Clark 8-2 in their opener before edging Cardinal Newman 2-1 in the semifinals to set up a championship match with current SLIAC rival Fontbonne on Nov. 5, 1983. Blackburn prevailed with a 2-1 win to finish with a 12-7-1 record, setting a school record for victories.

From 1978-87, Blackburn played a dual schedule, competing in the Illinois-Indiana Soccer Conference as well as the PCC. The Beavers won another PCC title in 1987 and made a third trip to the NSCAA tournament in 1988, finishing sixth at McPherson, Kan.

But the glory was about to end for Blackburn soccer. From Oct. 4, 1989 to Sept. 28, 1992, Blackburn endured a 44-game winless streak. The 1991 team scored only one goal for the entire season. The program, though, began to improve in the mid-1990s, winning four games in both 1994 and 1996 and three in 1995, including a 10-2 rout of Millikin on Oct. 4, 1995.

In 1997, Bryan Weaver, a 12-time letterwinner at Blackburn and one of the school’s most popular student- athletes in recent memory, took over as head coach and guided the Beavers to a 10-8-1 mark, the school’s only winning team in the decade.

However, in 2000, Blackburn welcomed Gene Baker, a legend in Illinois high school soccer who had collected nine state titles in a storied run at Granite City High School. With 793 career wins to his credit, Baker brought the same winning mentality to Blackburn, and the change quickly paid off.

In Baker’s second season in 2001, the Beavers finished 10-9-1 and picked up the school’s first win over MacMurray since 1977. The following fall, Blackburn tied the school record for wins at 12-7-1. In 2003, the Beavers went 11-7-2 and were eliminated from SLIAC contention on the final day of the season, finishing second in the league with a 10-2-2- mark.

Baker became Blackburn’s all-time winningest coach in just four seasons, with a trademark defense and gritty, determined play on the field. One of the great gentlemen of the game, Baker retired after the 2006 campaign.

Fortunately, another legendary coach stepped in. Aydin Gonulsen had retired in 2001 after a quarter- century as head coach at the University of Illinois – Springfield, where he had racked up 416 career wins and NAIA titles in 1986, 1988, and 1993. A member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, Gonulsen was widely recognized as an elite collegiate coach, and he came out of retirement to lift Blackburn to new heights.

In his first game, Blackburn set a school record for goals scored and margin of victory in a 13-0 win over St. Louis Christian. That record lasted only two years, falling in a 15-0 blowout of Lincoln Christian on Sept. 15, 2009.

It was the first in a string of record-setting performances for the Beavers under Gonulsen. In 2011, the

Beavers led all divisions of the NCAA – I, II, and III – in goals per game, the only school of the nearly 800 soccer- playing NCAA colleges and universities to average more than four goals per game. Blackburn matched the victory totals of the 1983 and 2002 teams with a 12-6 record that fall. Gonulsen concluded his remarkable career with his retirement following the 2012 season.

The Blackburn women do not have the long history of the men, but they have plenty of highlights of their own. They first took the field against MacMurray on Sept. 5, 1995, and Laura Novak scored the first goal in program history in a 6-1 loss. Three weeks later, the young program notched its first win, a 1-0 home shutout of Stephens College, and added another 1-0 victory against Greenville on October 11. They added a late-season forfeit to finish with a respectable 3-12-2 mark.

Optimism ran high as the 1996 season approached, and the Beavers delivered, setting the tone with a 2-1 win over five-time defending SLIAC champion Principia on Sept. 27, the Panthers’ first conference loss in three years. Blackburn continued to come of age against a challenging schedule and ripped off a late-season five-game win streak that included four shutouts to tally a 9-11 record and third-place conference finish.

The 1996 season marked the emergence of Summer Cooper, who went on to total 30 career goals, 23 assists, and 83 career points, all school records to date. As Cooper’s career was ending in 1999, Amie Rengel’s was just beginning. The program’s next superstar, Rengel poured in 22 goals and 58 points as a sophomore in 2000. After that season, the program bid farewell to its first coach, the energetic, likeable Elizabeth Koenn, who left to accept a coaching position in her native California.

In her place came Baker, who had coached the Granite City girls soccer team for thirteen years, including three berths in the state semifinals. He built on Koenn’s stability and produced results. Blackburn became one of the most consistent teams in the SLIAC under his direction, playing trademark defense with timely scoring

Rengel concluded her exceptional career in 2002 with 60 goals, 44 assists, and 164 points, all school records. Blackburn, however, never missed a beat and remained a competitive force in the SLIAC behind a tough defense and stout goalkeeper Katelyn Nonn, who recorded a single-season program high of 7.5 shutouts in 2003 and a career-best 22.5 shutouts from 2003-06.

Baker retired after the 2006 season and was replaced by Gonulsen, who led Blackburn to a record-breaking campaign in 2011. That season belonged to sophomore Samantha Ferguson, who was the statistical champion in two NCAA Division III categories, finishing with national highs at 1.53 goals per game and 3.53 points per game to become only the third Blackburn athlete to lead a single-season NCAA statistical category.

Ferguson also broke the Blackburn single-season record with 23 goals to go along with 53 points, and led the SLIAC with 85 shots on the year.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217- 710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.