Striking First

Members of the 1993 Penn State men’s soccer team shared memories of the program's first Big Ten championship.

black and white photo of the 1993 men's championship soccer team by Penn State Archives


It was raining the day before the 1993 Penn State men’s soccer team left for the Big Ten Tournament in Madison, Wis., so assistant coach Ted Gillen ’90 Bus took the Lions under the bleachers in Rec Hall, where they performed pull ups, pushups, sit ups, and burpees. “It was probably an hour,” recalls Michael Coll ’97 H&HD, a freshman on the team. “It felt like a day.

“We had never done that before and never did that after,” Coll says. “But Teddy must have known something. He put us through a tough session to see if we had the fight.”

The Lions, then in their third year in the conference, went into the tournament as the fourth seed. Three days and three one-goal wins later, they had wrapped up the championship and become—by a few minutes—the first Penn State team to win an outright Big Ten title.

“On paper, we were not the most talented team, per se,” says Chris Kelly ’94 Lib, a senior forward and co-captain of the squad. “That might upset some guys, but that’s alright. We were a group of guys that were hard-working, believed in each other, would do anything for each other, and I think that was part of the reason why we had so much success that year.”

The players on that team attribute their physical and mental toughness to the intense practices during the season. Sometimes those practices—particularly the 7 v. 7 scrimmages on the smaller, “Little Jeffrey” field adjacent to the main field, got chippy, but head coach Barry Gorman “allowed us to be us,” says Kelly.

“We got down and dirty,” says co-captain Gavin Reid ’94, ’96 MBA Bus. “We probably weren’t the nicest team to play against, because we fought hard. It wasn’t all just silky soccer.”

The Nittany Lions won Friday’s quarterfinal against Northwestern 2-1 on the strength of two Neil Piper goals, setting up Saturday’s semifinal against top-seeded Indiana, which had eliminated Penn State in both of its first two conference tournaments and had defeated the Nittany Lions 2-1 at Jeffrey Field earlier in the season. But the Lions drew strength from memories of their 3-1 overtime victory at Jeffrey Field the previous season and put down the Hoosiers when a shot from Sebastian Gouverneur ’97 Eng deflected off a defender and in with just over eight minutes left for the only score of the match. “We knew we could beat them,” Reid says. “We weren’t afraid of any team. Maybe they underestimated us.”

The weather in Madison was frigid. “That was probably the coldest weekend of my life,” says Coll, a native of Derry, Ireland. “We went straight back to the hotel and sat there until the next day.” Sunday’s final against the hometown Badgers wasn’t any warmer. Coll recalls several Wisconsin players wearing “those little beanie hats, which was strange because five or six of them were from Norway.”

The Lions and Badgers were scoreless until 10 minutes remained in the game, when junior forward Nick Scott ’95 H&HD took a Stuart Reid ’96 Lib cross and punched it past Wisconsin goalie Tim Deck. Several minutes later, the cold Lions celebrated. “It was one of the few times I really saw Coach Gorman have a big Cheshire cat grin,” Coll says. “He had a big smile on his face when that game ended.”

Penn State’s field hockey team beat Northwestern a few minutes later the same afternoon to clinch another Big Ten championship, the school's third; the women's volleyball team was co-conference champion in 1992. "There was a debate on which Penn State team was first (outright) Big Ten champions, but I think men’s soccer won (first) by like 10 minutes or something,” Coll says. The Lions flew home in time to learn their opponent for the NCAA tournament would be Robert Morris, which they would defeat 3-0 to set up a second-round matchup against Princeton. Penn State led 2-1 in that match with nine minutes left before the Tigers, who would go on to the NCAA semifinal, scored four unanswered goals. “Everything can’t end on happy notes,” Reid says. “But we got our fair share of good memories.”

Many of the players have stayed in touch over the years. They held a 25th-year reunion in 2018 and would chat on Zoom calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coll is the head coach of the UNC-Greensboro women’s soccer team. Kelly, a father of five and an officer in the Clarkstown (N.Y.) Police Department, coaches a girls’ Elite Clubs National League team. Their lives have taken them in different directions—Reid works in Tokyo as a controller for Texas Instruments—but that season, and their others on the field at Penn State, bring them back. “When you get together,” Kelly says, “it’s like it was yesterday.”