This Story is courtesy of Jeff Johnson and the York
Here, on the wall of this quaint office, a photograph captures a
scene impossible to overlook.
A group of young men huddles together, arm-in-arm at the center of a soccer field. In the photo, none of their faces are quite visible. Rather, the group appears as a unit -- the cohesive whole that all soccer coaches dream of.
A ray of light beams down on the backs of their jerseys, highlighting the perfect hint of Spartan green in the fall air. A long look at the photo leaves one to wonder: This breathtaking glow simply can't be from a stadium light tower. Perhaps God Himself sent down this light from out of the black night to make sure we don't miss a thing.
The photograph embodies York College men's soccer. And it's this scene hanging on the office wall of York head coach Mark Ludwig that serves as an emblem for a program that has risen to unbelievable heights.
Only a decade ago, when Ludwig was still an assistant coach at York, the recruiting plan was simple. Out of a pool of about 60 student-athletes interested in the program, a few local standouts would commit. Then a couple kids from Jersey and New York. And sometimes, what they accomplished was remarkable. Just ask the seniors on that 1998 conference championship team.
But now being a member of the Spartans means much more. It means you're worthy of being one piece in a program that can easily claim its place in the upper crest of NCAA Division III men's soccer. It means you're dedicated to a Division
I work ethic at a Division III school. It means you're willing to play for a coach who makes it clear that success is not an aspiration -- it's an expectation.
And one has to wonder, just how did it get to this point -- to
four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, to the NCAA
second-round contest against Johns Hopkins that will kick off
Sunday at 1 p.m. at Graham Field? How did a coach who's barely 40
bring this program this far? What has changed since all those years
Only a journey into the past of the Spartan program and its leader holds the answers.
Following in dad's footsteps
More than maybe any other kid on his block, Mark Ludwig was his
father's son. His dad, Millard, interrupted his soccer career at
Bloomsburg University in the late 1940s to serve in the Navy, but
after a brief stint serving in World War II, Millard's life was
devoted to the two things he held dearest -- sports and family.
He returned from the service to Millville, a small borough in Columbia County, to become a teacher, a coach and eventually an athletic director at Millville High. People always shared the same opinion of Millard -- he was the type of man everyone knew and loved; the guy who would help out a perfect stranger. That might have been the reason he only missed eight days of school in 41 years and Millville's sports stadium is now named Millard C. Ludwig Stadium.
So naturally, when Millard was coaching basketball or soccer or running the local sandlot league, there was his only son, Mark, along for the ride. It wasn't long before Mark was also living and breathing baseball, basketball and soccer.
As a high school senior, Mark helped Millville reach the soccer state final four. The achievement spoke volumes when one considers Millville had an average graduating class size of 75 and the PIAA playoffs only had one class back then.
That success led Mark to enroll at Elizabethtown College, a strong D-III soccer program to this day, and that's where he was presented with the biggest challenge of his young life.
He was stuck behind a future All-American in Matthew Sala. And when Mark did see the field, it was not at center-mid -- the position he thrived in during high school -- it was at sweeper back.
Mark wrestled with the decision. He was only one year behind Sala and he was looking for an academic change. Both were reason enough to make the choice -- he transferred to Gettysburg. Less than two years later, when he was a senior, Mark sat in the stands at E-Town, watching his former teammates celebrate wildly after winning the 1989 NCAA Division III national title.
"There's not a whole lot of things in my life I would want to go back and change, but that might've been something where I wish I had a little bit more desire," Mark Ludwig said recently, sitting behind his office desk in York's Grumbacher Sport and Fitness Center. "Whatever it took to get there ... to get in better shape or become a better player. I wish I would've fought it out a little bit more."
Mark graduated from Gettysburg with an education degree and with limited opportunities to follow the pro route in soccer.
But he always thought about coaching someday. And the way he looked at it, maybe missing out on the glory of the E-Town title was a sign. Maybe he was meant to taste that victory somewhere else.
So while Mark worked on finding full-time work, his life turned into a pressure-packed daily cycle; he had to find a way to make ends meet. He worked construction. He worked as a substitute teacher. He worked with an auctioneer. When none of that paid the bills, he would take a baseball card out of his overflowing collection and pawn it. The goal was simply to make $50 a day.
Mark served as a volunteer assistant at Millville High during that year, making sure to note that he would make it to practice when his work schedule allowed it. No one was surprised when he showed up every day ready to work with the kids -- just like his dad did for all those years.
The next year led to a job teaching math and coaching boys' soccer at South Western. In five years there, Mark took a program that had only three wins in his first season to a 16-7 finish in 1995 and a district appearance. The success was nice. He loved the people and his students at South Western. It showed him he could do this. But it wasn't exactly what he wanted.
Often, Mark would travel to watch college soccer. To Messiah. To Elizabethtown. To Gettysburg. Wherever it was, a familiar thought entered his mind.
This is where I have to be.
Getting his college chance
When Pat Massa took over the York College men's soccer program
in 1980, he inherited a program in the midst of major change.
York was transitioning from a NAIA school to NCAA Division III, which meant the loss of athletic scholarships. And Massa, a two-time NAIA men's soccer national champion at Davis and Elkins, had no true assistant coach and was working as a full-time teacher at York. The Spartans had successful seasons, but York hovered around .500 in the 1980s (.438) and 1990s (.525).
"It was tough back then and if you want to talk about the evolution (of the program), we weren't in a conference at the time," said Dr. Matt Robinson, a co-captain for Massa in the mid-1980s who later coached at Western Maryland, now McDaniel College, among other places.
"We weren't a 17-0 team. ... You can't remember the scores. You remember the guys. The friendships. The camaraderie. The scores you often forget."
Massa finally received clearance to bring in a part-time assistant around the '93 season. Two years later, he was looking to fill the position again and he thought of a young coach named Mark Ludwig.
Ludwig was young, intense and highly organized -- all things Massa cherished. And while Ludwig was seriously considering an offer to become a part-time assistant at Division I Bucknell at the time, he wanted to stay where he knew the landscape, which was in Division III. Plus, joining Massa at York was a way to keep his teaching job at South Western.
The coaches were a perfect match.
"There was one day Mark had to leave a game at halftime to go back to a wedding," Massa said of an away match with Salisbury. "He kept looking over his shoulder. He really didn't want to go."
Steadily, Massa allowed Ludwig to immerse himself in all facets of the Spartans' program. Ludwig played a key part in the recruiting effort and thrived leading small drills in practice.
The York athletic department then created a task force in '95 to examine other successful Division III athletic programs. York looked for trends that led to success. One of the chief findings was that full-time coaches were a necessity.
Massa revealed to Ludwig that he was pretty certain York would make the men's soccer head coaching position a full-time job. The Spartans' head coach did not keep it a secret that he saw Ludwig as his successor.
"I have a lot of faith in Mark," Massa said. "He allows his players to be inventive because they have to be able to figure things out on their own."
After a spectacular 16-4-1 season that culminated with York's first Capital Athletic Conference trophy in '98, Massa stepped down as York's coach after 18 seasons. There was a formal selection process for the vacant head coaching position, but ultimately Ludwig, who spent three years under Massa, was the obvious choice to take over. He passed on opportunities to interview elsewhere -- chiefly at D-II Bloomsburg, his father's alma mater.
As head coach, Ludwig brought a vision of a prominent national program to the table. He was also the perfect blend of no-nonsense drill sergeant and father figure. He often tells his players that he's there to be supportive, but he's not interested in making friends -- at least until his players graduate.
"That's something that I try to create -- a system where they take ownership," Ludwig said of his coaching philosophy. "If they are able to discipline themselves and conduct themselves, we're successful."
Facilities, talent are keys
On this unseasonably warm November afternoon, the York College
men's soccer team runs through a typical practice.
Starters don yellow mesh practice jerseys. Backups wear blue. Every minute of the practice session is planned out, marked down in a little notebook that is never far from Mark Ludwig's reach.
York starts with a short scrimmage situation. That leads into corner kick and restart drills. The two-hour session ends on penalty kick practice, with the second unit sprinting up and down the near sideline. Everything is watched attentively by Ludwig and his assistants, Bill Esterly and Steve Correri -- down to the breathing technique that players utilize on their jog up field.
The reasons for York's recent success (four straight NCAA Tournament appearances; two straight Elite Eights; a 147-39-12 record since 2000) are also paramount on this afternoon. First and foremost, the Spartans practice in the shadow of the $30-million Grumbacher Sport and Fitness Center. The facility, which opened in April of 2006, also includes state of the art Graham Field, where York plays games and practices. These facilities have transformed York into an attractive destination unimaginable to those who attended the private school even five years ago.
Next, there's York's vast assembly line of talented players. There are two national first-team All-Americans on the field in brothers Jon and Chris Ports from Baltimore. There is a trio of transfers from Division I programs: Jon Ports (Maryland), Aaron Good (Old Dominion) and Trey Good (Loyola). And there are several other players who probably could have tried their luck at the top level of college soccer as well.
Ludwig's ability to welcome in these transfer students is explained in two parts. First, he was one himself once upon a time. He can sympathize with a student-athlete's willingness for change.
Second, Division I soccer programs are only allowed 9.9 scholarships per year by the NCAA, which are frequently split into partial scholarships. That means many backups and even starters on the Division I level don't have to deal with the burden of flushing away a full ride to a big-name university if things don't work out, like in other sports.
So Ludwig keeps his ears -- not to mention his e-mail account -- open at all times. He receives 15 to 20 transfer requests a year from Division I-caliber athletes. Combine that with a pool of about 400 student-athletes who are interested in York and that's where Ludwig builds his base.
"I really liked that he was younger and energetic, and everything that he was doing for the program," said defender Evan Scheffey, a senior and d3kicks.com second-team All-American a year ago. "He doesn't guarantee anyone a spot, and he says if you come to prove yourself, you have a definite chance to play. That was enough motivation for me."
Coaches in the Division III soccer community have also taken notice of Ludwig's recruiting effort.
"I think it's been a combination of Mark doing a better and better job of understanding what he wants out of his team and the college doing a better job with facilities and the promotion of athletics in general," said Messiah head coach Dave Brandt, whose Falcons have won five national championships in his 11-year tenure. "They have steadily grown deeper and more talented through these past few years."
Ludwig, who just had his first child, Christian, about a year ago with his wife, Connie, said recently that now, more than ever before, his family is his No. 1 priority in life. That family-first attitude was also affirmed when Ludwig's father, Millard, died unexpectedly at 77 after a heart attack in 2001. (Christian's middle name is Millard, in honor of Millard Ludwig).
But don't take that statement the wrong way. The guy who used to sell baseball cards just so that he could volunteer at soccer practice is still as passionate as ever.
He's finally obtained the type of soccer team that teaches itself, that is a whole. Remember that picture on the wall?
And no longer does Ludwig have to rely on his best sales pitch to explain his vision and his dream.
It's already here.
-- Reach Jeffrey A. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-5406