From the beginning, men's soccer has always been a tight-knit family.
BY TREVOR ANDERSON
In the late 1970s, Spartanburg County’s economy was continuing to drift away from domestic textile manufacturing to more global, diversified industries. The community was attracting new foreign direct investment and skilled workers from across the world. These new residents brought with them an interest in a recreational activity that generally did not enjoy the same local support as football, baseball and basketball.
“The actual reason why USCS decided to have a soccer team was because of youth soccer,” says Frank Kohlenstein, founder of the university’s men’s soccer program and head coach from 1980-88. “We had a lot of folks moving here from other parts of the world, where soccer is the most popular sport. Parents were organizing leagues so their kids could play.”
Kohlenstein says USCS leaders approached him about starting the soccer program so kids would be able to keep playing when they reached college. Soccer began in 1979 as a club sport, with plans to make it a full program the following year.
“That (club) team was comprised of students, faculty and staff,” Kohlenstien says. “We finished that year and I was the leading scorer, so I knew we were going to need a lot more talent if we were going to be competitive at the next level.”
Kohlenstein returned to his roots and began recruiting players from the Miami area. He managed to cobble together a squad made up of players from across the world that would be the foundation of the program’s future. At the time, however, Kohlenstein says he had no idea what to expect.
“Looking back on it now, it’s pretty amazing that all of these guys came in at the same time,” he says. “It could have been a recipe for disaster. There were no meal plans, no dorms on campus. We played our home games on the quad. If the ball went past the trees, it was out (of bounds). But if it hit the trees and came back in, it was still in.”
The inaugural 1980 squad competed in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics’ (NAIA) District 6. It finished the season with a record of 11-6-1. While it lost close matches to the University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston and Furman University, the team knocked off the likes of Wake Forest, UNC Asheville, Winthrop and Davidson.
“Those guys were really amazing,” Kohlenstein says. “I worked them hard. It was hot that summer. They got on with it and trained really hard. We ran a lot — around campus and through a peach orchard. But I did it with them. I mean, it’s hard to complain. You know, ‘when the coach is doing it, I have to do it.’ They became a family because all they had was each other. They definitely became a band of brothers.”
The 'Sandlot' guys
Carlos Osorio, a member of the inaugural USCS men’s soccer team and a long-serving youth coach in the region, arrived in the Upstate eager to pursue both his passion for soccer and a college education. He found more than he bargained for.
“We were practicing on the front lawn,” he says. “I mean, we looked like a bunch of ‘Sandlot’ guys. I remember my teammate Bob Cheshier showed up one day. He was carrying a duffel bag with a fishing pole and a hunting rifle. He asked us if we were the soccer team. We just shook our heads. ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Osorio roomed with Mario del Pino, another member of the 1980 team and a USCS standout. The two rented an apartment near Cleveland Park.
“I remember we’d have soccer camps on the quad to raise money,” Osorio says. “We’d train in the morning, then have camp, where we worked for free. During the breaks, we’d sell cups of Chek soda from Winn-Dixie to the campers to earn a little more. Those were great times. I remember going to indoor tournaments during the winter. We’d stay 10 to a room just to save money.”
Osorio recalled that on one of the team’s trips to play N.C. State, Kohlenstein pulled the van over at a rest area. The coach’s wife, Debbie Kohlenstein, brought out bread, peanut butter, jelly, lunchmeat, rice cakes and water.
“That was our pre-game meal,” Osorio says with a laugh. “Debbie was awesome. A lot of the guys were far from home, so whenever it was their birthday, she’d bake them a cake.”
“When the program finally started getting money, it became possible for us to stop at Wendy’s after our away games,” Osorio adds. “Frank told us we had a $5 limit. If we went over, we had to pay. If we hit it on the nose, he’d buy us a Frosty. We would send the freshmen up to order first and find out what to order that would cost exactly $5. When one of them hit it, we’d all order the same thing, and everyone got a Frosty. (Frank) didn’t let that go on very long.”
Osorio said Kohlenstein did everything he could to raise money for the program and was always looking for deals to make sure his players had the equipment they needed to compete.
“I remember one year Umbro gave us some free shoes,” he said. “Frank was always dealing with somebody. Anything that could save money for the program. I remember one year he found some purple basketball jerseys for us to wear to an indoor tournament.”
After Osorio finished his playing career, he became Kohlenstein’s assistant coach. He remembers watering and cutting the grass at Rifle Field.
“A lot of sacrifices were made to make the program a success,” he says. “We had a great time. I have so many great memories with the guys who really did a lot to start the program. To see where it is now, to see what they have is amazing. They don’t understand.”
Osorio praised Kohlenstein for instilling teamwork, hard work and a winning mentality in the program’s first teams. Those qualities continued to be hallmarks of the program long after Kohlenstein departed in 1988 to become the head coach at UNC Charlotte.
“Frank did a great job of making sure that he got the maximum amount out of everybody,” Osorio says. “You know, not everybody loved him. The Cooper runs were awful. The peach orchard runs were torture. But we were going to outwork everyone. That’s something I’ve continued to instill in my teams.”
And, Osorio notes, however hard Kohlenstein could be, everyone knew one thing for certain – “If the guys ever needed anything, he was always there.”
Success begets success
In 1983, the Rifles finished with a 21-1-1 record and came in third in the NAIA national tournament. Kohlenstein was named the NAIA Coach of the Year in 1983 and the NSCAA Coach of the Year in 1983 and 1984.
Recognized four times as the NAIA District 6 Coach of the Year, Kohlenstein coached 13 NAIA All-Americans, nine NSCAA All-Americans, 13 NAIA All-Area players, 21 NAIA All-District players, two NAIA District 6 Players of the Year a two-time Academic All-American and three Academic All-District players.
Kohlenstein credits the players, especially those on the inaugural team, for helping the program continue to attract talent.
“The guys on the team were the best recruiters,” he says. “Players would come visit and they could see the excitement, the brotherhood, and how everyone was committed to getting better. A lot of them became successful coaches, teachers and business leaders. That’s not really what you picture when you’re starting out.”
Kohlenstein says the program built up a fan base that was attracted to the personality, flare and success of the players.
“Anyone who came out to those matches wouldn’t have left disappointed,” he says. The players “were fierce competitors. When we laid it out in front of them, they accepted it. I mean, practices were really hard. They didn’t always leave happy. But the games seemed easy by comparison. I’m sure sometimes they thought I was crazy. They had courage and belief. They were fearless. I was really honored to be part of it.”
“The biggest thing that I think led the team to success early on and throughout their lives, which is what I hope for every player I coach, was the togetherness of these teams,” Kohlenstein adds. “We learned that all the little things — the extra work, the emotion — made us successful. There are plenty of talented people out there who aren’t successful. We wanted to make sure that we got better every day. When we went out to compete, we believed in each other.”
Celebrating a legacy
On March 27, USC Upstate was finally able to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its men’s soccer program and the 20th anniversary of its women’s program. The celebration, which coincided with the university’s homecoming, was delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. About 25 former players from all eras of the men’s program came out to watch the current team compete and to see how the campus has evolved in the years – and, in some cases, decades — since they were at the university. Some former players joined the festivities virtually.
The reunion was joyful, with a lot of hugs, friendly conversations and stories.
While the men’s team fell to High Point University 2-1, the competitive spirit and passion at the heart of the program remain every bit as intense as they were at its foundation.
With Scott “Cutter” Halkett, a USC Upstate Athletics Hall of Famer and NCAA Division II first team All-American, serving as the team’s head coach, the consensus among former players appears to be that the program’s best days are ahead.
“I’m excited for Scott,” Kohlenstein said. “I’ve talked to him a number of times and it’s clear how much it means to him to lead the program forward. I think he has things moving in the right direction.”
“Cutter, his heart and soul are in this program,” Osorio said. “No one questions that. We know what it means to him and we’re so happy to see what he’s been able to do so far.”
The team finished the 2021 regular season, shortened due to the pandemic, with one of its best records in USC Upstate’s Division I era.
On April 13, Halkett was named the Big South Men’s Soccer Coach of the Year. Seven of his players earned All-Conference honors.
Halkett says he is honored by the coaching recognition and credits his coaching staff, which includes associate head coach Nico Luque and two former players, Michelangelo Dovidio and Santiago Restrepo, with helping the team accomplish so much. He notes the players, too, share in the award.
“Without the team growing, playing as well as they have, and competing like they have this year, this award would not be possible,” he says.