The following feature originally appeared in the Sept. 6 edition of Army Football Gameday vs. New Hampshire.
by Mady Salvani
“The game of soccer brought me to where I am today which is a coach and a teacher,” explains longtime Army women’s soccer mentor Gene Ventriglia, who will retire as the Black Knights’ field boss following the 2008 season.
While Army’s record books have marked Gene Ventriglia’s achievements as the only mentor women’s soccer has known, it is not the wins, loses or ties that he looks to as part of his legacy. He would rather be remembered first as a coach who imparted passion and love of the game to his players, and second as a teacher who taught them how to succeed not only on the pitch but in life.
His records speak for themselves as Ventriglia, the lone mentor Amy women’s soccer has ever known, distinguished himself by building the Black Knights from the ground up and turning them into a regional power after being selected to lead Army’s burgeoning program in 1985.
“When I first came to West Point, I had no idea I would be here this long,” stated Ventriglia. “I felt I would be here a few years and take on another challenge doing something else. But what a ride it has been.
“The most rewarding thing is to see the transformation, the change that young ladies go through from the time they enter as plebes, to four years later when they leave as very poised, very sharp and very composed individuals. I hope I played a part in that.”
West Point could not have found a better coach for its unique challenge when it turned to Ventriglia, a highly successful high school coach in the Hudson Valley, in the mid-1980s to lead its women’s soccer club program.
Ventriglia credits the sport of soccer for the opportunities it opened up to him after emigrating with his family from Italy to America as a teenager. He went on to play soccer in college, earned a degree, competed at the Olympic Games, taught foreign languages and social studies in high school along with setting an enviable record as a boy’s soccer coach in the Hudson Valley. That in turn led him to the job of building a women’s soccer program from the ground up at the U.S. Military Academy.
“My family came over to America because there was hope,” reflected West Point’s longest tenured coach. “There were five in our family my parents and two sisters. My mother, whose sister was already in this country, came over first with my middle sister because of the emigration quotas. We were separated for over two years before the rest of the family, my father, younger sister and I could join them.
“We lived in an Italian community and I felt very comfortable because everyone spoke Italian and not English. I did not speak English when I first arrived and I don’t know how I survived in school, but somehow I did.”
The passing of Ventriglia’s father within a year after his arrival forced additional hardships on his family. He learned values through those tough times with his mother as an inspiration, working various jobs to support her family.
Soccer opened doors to a world never dreamed of by a young boy new to America. The first door put him on the road to earning a college degree after he was spotted playing in a local soccer league by future National Soccer Hall of Famer Al Miller of SUNY Paltz.
“Coach Miller talked to me about going to college,” remarked Ventriglia. “I had no money nothing, but eventually I did go. I sold my little car to pay for my first semester, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the next semester. I worked four or five nights a week at a bakery. Sunday was my favorite day because I got to play soccer, which was my saving grace.”
Ventriglia enjoyed a remarkable career on the pitch at New Paltz, earning three All-America citations and receiving Soccer Magazine’s Player of the Year award as a senior. Ventriglia, who competed at the 1968 Olympic Games, will be inducted this October into the National Soccer Hall of Fame with the New Paltz Class of 1965 that won the Eastern Regionals.
“I never would have survived at school without that team and without soccer, which led me to where I am today,” stated the native of Alife, Italy. “So many people were there to help me succeed, and that is why the game is important to me and why I vowed I would give something back.”
Coaching and teaching has allowed him to honor his vow, first as a high school foreign language and social studies teacher, then as a high school boy’s soccer coach, and next as the first coach of the Army women’s soccer program.
When Ventriglia first began coaching at Army, he was a full-time high school teacher. After his final class of the day at Highland High School, he would rush to arrive on time for 4:00 p.m. practice at West Point
“It was difficult at times to stay in touch with my players and keep up with the athletic department,” explained Ventriglia. “Unlike today, it wasn’t easy to get in touch with my players. There were no phones in their rooms, no computers or cell phones, so I relied heavily on my graduate assistant.”
The rigors of being a part-time coach made it difficult for Ventriglia. When Army moved from the Division II ranks to Division I with its entrance into the Patriot League in 1991, he made a decision to leave teaching. It was not an easy choice as he loved his students, but his move from the classroom to the pitch proved to be quite a run.
The “father of Army women’s soccer” first molded the Black Knight booters into a top Division II squad, then took it a step higher at the Division I level. He heads into his final season with a 63-31-10 regular-season Patriot League mark, with four regular-season titles and a championship crown, along with being tabbed coach of the year five times. His overall record of 252-158-26 ranks among the winningest active coaches in the NCAA.
Ventriglia’s most successful season was in 1993 when he guided the Black Knights to a remarkable 20-1-1 record. The team established countless school records en route to winning the Patriot League Championship and setting single season standards for victories, fewest losses, winning percentage (.932), shutouts (13) and unbeaten streak (18) along the way.
“There are so many teams and players to remember,” remarked the Patriot League’s elder statesman. “But the 1993 team was special. We were not picked to win the league title, but we went into enemy territory and won. We had tied Colgate during the regular season, but they were the top seed and host of the tournament.
“I remember that day in Hamilton, N.Y., like it was yesterday. “It was snowing, sleeting and raining. We had gone up 3-0, but I knew the game was not over. Colgate came back, tied it and went ahead. We tied it and won the game in overtime, 5-4, on Kate Pendry’s goal.
“There were a lot of stars and role players on that team, and they were all on the same page. Everyone understood how important their role was to the team’s success. They were the easiest team to coach.”
Countless players’ lives were touched by Ventriglia over the years, which is why being there for them was just as important as teaching them the Xs and Os.
Ventriglia started off his final campaign running full speed, preparing a very talented squad for what he hopes will be a run for the Patriot League title. Caught up in the throes of coaching, he has had little time to reflect on the day he coaches his final Army game. His wife Donna, his biggest supporter along with his daughter Linda and sons Sandy and Jimmy, will be there with him along with his family, friends and former players.
“I will be sad, but not because I won’t be coaching,” explained Ventriglia, “but the fact that I wont be dealing with the young people here every day. That will be hard.”
When he reflects on his years at Army, one of the most rewarding aspects of the job was the opportunity to coach alongside his sons, Sandy and Jimmy.
“Watching my sons grow as a coach was the most rewarding thing for me. Jimmy is now coaching and teaching at the high school level and it doesn’t get better then that.”
“Duty, Honor, Country” is what West Point teaches its cadets over four years at the Academy. Ventriglia has exemplified that motto throughout his life, putting forth a legacy that will remember him as a benevolent father guiding and mentoring his players in the sport that gave him his start in life.
Mady Salvani is the Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.