1978 – Around the World and Close to Home
The first child conceived outside human body is born in Britain, John Paul II becomes first non-Italian Pope in 455 years after Paul VI and John Paul I die less than eight weeks apart, and behind Mario Kempes host Argentina turns back Holland in extra time to win the World Cup. After a freighter collides with the West Seattle Bridge, one span is rendered permanently impassable, Seattle hires its first female firefighter, and the last Interstate-90 stoplight in Washington is eliminated by a North Bend bypass.
Champions at Last
It was one thing to have your professional club play for a championship, but it’s an entirely different matter when a team overwhelmingly comprised of players from your cities, towns and neighborhoods reach for such prizes. That’s precisely what happens in the closing weeks of 1978, when Seattle Pacific University at last claims an NCAA championship.
For four years Seattle Pacific had been contending for the Division II crown, reaching the final three times, only to be denied. In 1970, Cliff McCrath had inherited a fledgling program and soon infused his players with the fundamental belief that, playing as a team, they could accomplish great things. As the Falcons began achieving success – beginning with upset wins, then postseason berths and conference titles – the dream of a national championship was not far-fetched. To them, at least.
To outsiders, however, SPU appears to be unfashionable wannabes competitive within the region, perhaps, but not championship material. Not when the other collegiate powerhouses – in Division I and II – are relying heavily on more experienced, mostly foreign talent, while Seattle Pacific was cast of mainly shaggy-haired local kids. This season, of the 24 roster players, 20 hail from Washington high schools. All but two are underclassmen.
The championship game is played in broiling midday Miami heat, against Alabama A&M, the defending champion and featuring primarily Nigerian and Jamaican players. During the playoffs, the Bulldogs had bulldozed all comers, outscoring opponents 15-0 (they would reclaim the crown in 1979 and be 1981 Division I runners-up). SPU is coming off an exhausting 1-0 overtime win over Southern Connecticut the day before.
A year earlier, the Falcons had held their own versus AA&M, going down 2-1 in the final. McCrath goes shopping after the semifinal, buying mesh jerseys to combat the steamy conditions. He also instructs his troops to play a measured, zonal defense, pulling all 11 players behind the ball, forcing the Bulldogs to constantly move side to side. It’s ugly but effective. It plainly frustrates Alabama. “It was David and Goliath. Nobody was kidding anybody about which team had the players,” said McCrath. “But we kept them off their rhythm.”
Sergio Soriano faces 22 shots, making eight saves, and it remains scoreless throughout regulation and throughout two more 15-minute overtime periods. Finally, in the 128th minute, a throw-in from Eric Benz finds the head of Jim McKay, who flicks the ball far post when freshman Bruce Raney snaps his header neatly into the net. Game over. Washington’s first national championship in soccer, at any level, goes to SPU.
Four days later, McCrath writes and mails a letter to Washington State Youth Soccer Associationleaders, dedicating the championship to all those who helped develop these players into world-beaters. He said: “Effectively, this national championship belonged to them, it was dedicated to them because these were their players.”
Belief is a beautiful thing, belief. The fruit of ability, hope and knowledge, belief is that crucial final station before realization. The argument can be made that Seattle Pacific’s feat creates a belief in more and more teams from Washington, because in the succeeding 15 years after Seattle Pacific’s ’78 NCAA title, Puget Sound area youth and senior teams win 18 national championships.