Charles M. Hall School offered two sports to its student-athletes in the early 1960s, and soccer wasn’t one of them.
The Rev. Ralph Miller had never seen a soccer game until his brother’s kid took up the sport years later. All that withstanding, in the fall of 1989, Alcoa superintendent of schools Bill Symons, whose son, Craig, played the game, came to Miller with an offer the good reverend could not refuse.
“He said, ‘Ralph, would you be interested in starting a soccer team?’” Miller said. “‘If you take it for a couple of years, we’ll get somebody to relieve you.’”
With that, Alcoa High School soccer was born. Twenty years later, the school that was the last in Blount County to even have a soccer team has become the first to qualify for the state tournament.
The Tornadoes (16-5-1) played their Class A/AA quarterfinal match with Chattanooga Christian at Richard Siegel Soccer Complex in Murfreesboro after Blount Today went to press Wednesday morning. Results can be found at www.BlountToday.com.
It was a proud moment for Miller when he got news of Alcoa knocking off Elizabethton, 4-1, in last Saturday’s sectional to reach state.
“I was really elated,” he said.
Junior Derrick Brodus, a Division I prospect at one of the forwards, knocked home a pair of goals in the win, matching the total he delivered five days earlier in an historic, 3-2 overtime win over defending state champion Catholic in the region semifinals.
Senior Sam Thompson delivered the golden goal in the extra session on a stirring breakaway, putting Alcoa in the region championship game for the first time. Five-time state champion Christian Academy of Knoxville would take the region title, 1-0, but a convincing win in the sectionals more than salved the Tornadoes wounds.
In goal scorer Andrew Mitchell, defender Dusty McClanahan and goalkeeper Adrian Womac, Alcoa has plenty of skill and leadership in its senior class. In super freshman Austin Stone, the Tornadoes have a young talent who could one day rival the best to ever play the sport here.
Miller had none of that 20 years ago.
He’d graduated from Hall in 1961.
“They didn’t play any soccer when I was a kid,” he said. “We only had football and basketball there.”
When Miller took the Alcoa job, few had played much soccer there, either. There was a lot to learn for the new coach, as well.
“I would sit and watch films on how to kick the ball, how to shoot the ball,” he said. “I bought every film I could find.”
As for players, Miller said he kept it simple.
“We didn’t have any skill,” he said. “Some of those kids had never played any soccer. We just had some kids who liked sports and would play hard.”
Expectations were understandably modest that first year, but that didn’t stop the Tornadoes from giving Miller one for the books the first time they took the field.
“In fact, we won the first game we ever played,” he said. “We beat Heritage High School, 1-0, in overtime, but we lost all the rest.”
As per the agreement with Symons, Miller, now a guidance counselor at the school, stepped down after a couple of seasons, with the reins of his fledgling program eventually finding their way into hands of Alcoa teacher Ken Brown in the team’s fifth season. That, Miller said, is when things really began to happen for Tornado soccer.
“When Ken Brown became coach, they really got started,” Miller said. “They really progressed.”
Brown entered with a plan. Like Miller, his knowledge of soccer was limited. He immediately brought in longtime Parks and Rec coach Larry Fowler as an assistant to help with instruction. As the talent at the middle school and on area club teams began to build, Fowler happened on Oak Ridge native Tom Gorman to take the program the rest of the way.
Gorman dropped by a Lady Tornado practice in the fall of 2003 and offered his help. Fowler said he was impressed enough by Gorman’s knowledge of the game to offer the latter a job as his assistant on both the boys and girls teams - within a week.
Five years ago, Fowler, who remains as head coach of the Lady Tornadoes, turned the boy’s team over to Gorman.
Alcoa got close last year. The talent was there. On a rocket goal from Thompson, they’d extracted a first-ever tie, 1-1, from arch-rival Maryville.
When the Tornadoes were snubbed in a local preseason poll of top area teams this spring, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.
“Carter and Seymour were mentioned in there,” Gorman said, “and none of our players were mentioned as players to watch. People at my job were saying, ‘I thought you said you guys were good.’”
Alcoa defeated Carter, 4-3, in the District 3A/AA championship match, four days prior to the landmark win over the Irish.
The Tornadoes have plenty of firepower on hand in Murfreesboro. Brodus paces the team with 20 goals on the season. Three others - Mitchell, 16 goals, Stone, 12, and Thompson, 10 - are in double figures. Junior midfielder Eric Lussinger, the team’s designated playmaker, leads with 12 assists to go with his nine goals. Mitchell and sophomore Harrison Powell have nine assists each, with Stone and Brodus adding nine helpers each.
Womac has shutout eight opponents in goal, collecting 116 saves on the season.
Alcoa now has the talent in its junior, sophomore and freshman classes to make state regular occurrence.
“Coming in as freshmen, nobody even talked about state,” McClanahan said.
“Now that we’re here, it’s so satisfying,” Mitchell said.
If the inaugural trip is to prove a success, though, it’s the seniors - Thompson, Miller, Womac and midfielder Matt Franklin - who’ll power the Tornadoes, Gorman said. It was Mitchell’s first half goal, giving Alcoa an early 2-0 lead, which eventually proved the difference at Elizabethton.
Womac and Thompson have been this far with other sports. Both have four state championship rings with the school’s football team. Thompson is going to the big show in his third sport, having helped the Tornado basketball team reach the state tournament one year as well.
“Adrian and Sam have been through it four times already with football,” Gorman said. “We’re going to lean on them. It’s on there shoulders now.”
The Tornadoes have come a long way from Miller’s first team, one comprised primarily, he said, of “big kids who just enjoyed running.” These Tornadoes can shoot, score and defend with some of the best in the state now.
And just think. All it took was a preacher 20 years ago, who, with very little knowledge of the soccer, decided to go ahead and do it anyway.