In the 40 years since its formation in 1974, the College of Charleston has built an impressive reputation as one of the top mid-major schools for Division I soccer. Since the school became Division – I members in 1991, the team has won five conference titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament on five occasions.
The first head coach, or “father” of Charleston soccer, was Ted Miller. Miller served as the head coach from 1974-78, amassing an impressive 50-30-8 record and helping to build a winning program. Miller was a “jack-of-all-trades” man during the 70’s for the College’s athletic department. While running the soccer program, he also served as the head wrestling and golf coach. In the Cougars’ 2014 opener, Miller was inducted into the men’s soccer hall of fame to commemorate the start of the 40th season.
While Miller may have gotten the soccer team off the ground, it is thanks to current head coach, Ralph Lundy, that the program has gained the respect it has today. Lundy is in his 28th season as the Cougars’ coach, and 39th season as a head coach in total. He spent 11 successful years coaching at Erskine College, finishing with a 131-71-13 record. Since coming to Charleston, he has compiled a 292-221-50 record, coaching the team to 19 winning seasons.
When Lundy took over the team in 1987, he described the team as in a “down” state, so Lundy worked to “redo” the program. Focused on building a winner, Lundy scheduled demanding matchups to challenge his players with the best competition. “All my buddies would play me home and home: Duke, South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina, Wake Forest,” Lundy said.
His rivalries with fellow coaches proved helpful, as the Cougars soon proved they could hang against big time opponents. In 1989, led by Luiz Viera and Chad Carithers, the Cougars upset Notre Dame, while still a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), an athletics association that was second-tier compared to the NCAA.
As men’s soccer played more exhibitions against D-1 opponents, the College as a whole made the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division I, thanks to the efforts of then-president, Harry M. Lightsey. “He was an amazing man and a visionary. He knew what the College of Charleston could be,” Lundy said of Lightsey.
When they first moved to D-1, the College joined the Trans-America Athletic Conference, or what is known today as the Atlantic Sun Conference. In six seasons in the TAAC, the soccer team won four straight conference championships from 1993 to 1996. In addition, they reached the NCAA tournament three times from 1994 to 1996.
Charleston’s most exciting run in the NCAA Tournament came during the 1994 season, their first appearance in the national tournament. Following an undefeated season in TAAC play, the Cougars faced the number four seed in the tournament, UNC Charlotte, in the opening round. In a three overtime thriller, Charleston prevailed 1-0. Keeping with their overtime theme, they defeated North Carolina State, 4-3, in four overtimes, earning them an unlikely spot in the quarterfinals against UCLA. The Cougars’ cinderella run ended there, however, as they gave up a last minute goal and UCLA squeaked by, 3-2.
The leader of the program during their four straight TAAC titles was tenacious midfielder, Aaron Olitsky, one of the best to have donned a Charleston jersey. Olitsky single-handedly qualified the Cougars for NCAA Tournament play three times, scoring the winning goal in the clinching game each season from 1994-1996. In 2001, he died tragically in a car accident, prompting the College to rename their season opening tournament the “Aaron Olitsky Memorial Classic” in 2002.
“He was a great player on the 1994, 1995 and 1996 teams whose attitude and persistence have become the standard for our program,” Lundy said. “He was a bit of an underdog with a spirit that said ‘I will not be defeated’ not only on the soccer field, but in all his endeavors. Every day, I challenge our players to be more like Aaron Olitsky.”
In 1998, the school made the move from the TAAC to the Southern Conference. After a very successful run in the TAAC, the move to the more challenging conference presented a number of transitional years for the soccer team. “We had a real special group that had to endure [the time] when we couldn’t win any championships,” Lundy said.
Finally in 2004, after losing in the conference finals the year before, the Cougars won the SoCon tournament for the first time, defeating Davidson in the championship. In the NCAA Tournament, they fought past South Carolina, 3-2, in the first round, before falling to fellow SoCon member UNC-Greensboro 3-2 in the second round.
The program experienced continued success through their next several years, however, they repeatedly fell short in postseason play. In 2006, following a 12-4-1 campaign, they lost 2-1 in a gut wrenching double overtime game to UNC-Greensboro in the conference semifinals. The two teams met in the postseason again the following year, this time in the SoCon championship, but UNC-Greensboro proved to have Charleston’s number, taking down the Cougars by a score of 2-1.
The Cougars most recently reached the NCAA Tournament in 2010. After a regular season where they sported a 10-4-3 record, they earned an at-large bid and defeated East Tennessee State in their opening game. In the following round, they were matched up against the top seeded University of Louisville, where they fell 3-1 to the Cardinals.
Charleston’s final two seasons in the SoCon were disappointing. In 2011, the Cougars finished with a winning percentage below .500 for the first time since 2001, ending with a 4-8-5 record. In the 2012 season, their last as SoCon members, the Cougars followed a difficult non-conference slate with a solid 4-2-1 performance in conference play. Although they finished with an overall record two games below .500, they qualified for the SoCon Tournament, but lost to Appalachian State in their opening game.
The College made their much anticipated move to the Colonial Athletic Association in 2013, putting their athletic teams up against tough opponents from across the eastern seaboard. Much like their first seasons in the SoCon back in the late 90s, their initial season in the CAA was a difficult one for the Cougars. On top of their new conference opponents, they had the toughest non-conference schedule of any team in D-I soccer. They finished 2-4-1 in the CAA and 4-11-1 overall, but all four of their conference losses were by one goal, which was something Lundy viewed as optimistic for 2014.
“The Colonial is really, really tough. We lost a lot of one goal games [in 2013]. I got three great seniors [in 2014]: Troy Peterson, Tanner Clay, and Daan Brinkman. They are great leaders, so to tell you the truth I am happy,” Lundy said.
Led by those seniors, the Cougars believe 2014 will be a much improved campaign, although they had a rough start to the season. Lundy was confident that their poor performance at the 2014 Olitsky Invitational, dropping both their games, was an aberration.
“I wasn’t happy because I felt like we didn’t play anywhere near our ability. We were sloppy and had a lot of turnovers. We were our own worst enemy,” Lundy said.
One Cougar in particular, freshman starting goalkeeper Brian Kilgallon, has been recognized for his terrific early season play. He was named the CAA rookie of the week following back-to-back shutout performances in Charleston’s wins over Georgia State (2-0) and North Florida (4-0) at the Gray Griffin Memorial Tournament hosted by Furman in September.
Leading up to their Oct. 4 conference opener against Northeastern, the Cougars have shown that when they can control possession in the midfield and get the ball to their forwards, they have a dangerous attack. However, much like last year, inconsistent play in the midfield and struggles defensively against talented offensive opponents has been Charleston’s achilles heel. With conference play ready to heat up, the Cougars are poised for the challenge, a challenge that Lundy thinks this 40th anniversary team is ready to take head on.
“I think we can win a championship, win the CAA and make the NCAA Tournament. My guys are getting after it, working hard and making great strides,” Lundy said.
This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of The Yard.