By Mark Schnabel
HESSTON – A 36-year coaching career has given former Hesston College and Bethel College soccer coach Gerry Sieber some measure of recognition.
Sieber will be inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association Soccer Hall of Fame at the NJCAA Division I Soccer Championships awards banquet at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Va.
"About a week-and-a-half ago, I got an e-mail from Michael Pantalione (coach at seven-time national champion Yavapai College in Arizona), 'It's my pleasure to inform you of your induction into the National Junior College Soccer Hall of Fame,' " Sieber said. "This started back in April. That first contact came out of the blue. 'I don't know if you remember me from 25 years ago on a cold day in Parkville, Mo. Somehow, I am still coaching soccer at Yavapai College.' "
Sieber said that was the only time he remembered meeting Pantalione, who would nominate him for the honor. That meeting was at the NJCAA district semifinals, which Yavapai won.
Sieber spent 23 years coaching at Hesston. He went on to coach 13 more years at Bethel College. Sieber won 247 games at Hesston. He also won 120 games at Bethel. While at Bethel, he helped established the women's program.
Sieber won 12 NJCAA Region VI titles at Hesston and was region coach of the year eight times. His team qualified for the NJCAA nationals in 1972 (but didn't compete). He also led Hesston to a National Little College Athletic Association (now called the USCAA) national tournament.
At Bethel, he helped lead the Threshers to a Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season title as well as a KCAC tournament title. He led several Bethel teams to NAIA regional play.
While at Hesston, Sieber coached 22 NJCAA All-Americans.
"It's a pretty significant honor," Sieber said. "It's exciting. It's rewarding. It's humbling. It's totally unexpected. I figured everything in my soccer career was in my past. I'm most appreciative of it."
Sieber first came to Hesston in the fall of 1963 as a student, although he played basketball for the Larks. He later went to Goshen College as a basketball player. He finally started to play soccer as a senior, doing well enough to earn an invitational to a US Olympic regional tryout.
He started his coaching career in 1968.
"There was virtually no soccer being played on the Plains," Sieber said. "All of the organized soccer was played on the East Coast, the West Coast and in larger cities like St. Louis and Chicago, where there were a lot of ethnic groups that played the game and continue to play the game."
Sieber said his players at the time were all athletes converted from other sports.
"We would have a couple international students and a couple missionary kids," Sieber said. "The rest were all good American athletes, who were good in basketball, football, track, who picked up the game. Hesston already had a strong tradition of winning games. So I stepped into a good situation. I had to work hard to keep the ball rolling."
When he later started recruiting, Sieber said he got players from constituent Mennonite high schools in the east, along with players in the Wichita area.
He later helped form the first youth teams in Hesston.
"The very first youth soccer league in central Kansas consisted of two teams from Derby, two teams I coached from Hesston and four teams from Wichita," Sieber said. "That was around 1970. In about a year or two, soccer really exploded, and there wasn't a need in the Wichita league for teams from Hesston, so we just played in Hesston with our own youth soccer league. We had 14 teams in grades one through six. It was a spring league and some of the parents coached the teams."
He briefly spent time with a cousin in Chicago, where he practiced and played with a semipro team.
Sieber said his early years as Hesston coach had him learning as much about the game as his players. Hesston played in a conference that included schools such as York College (Neb.), Central Christian College in McPherson, Friends Bible College (now Barclay College), St. John's College (in Winfield, now closed). Cloud County Community College later joined the conference.
He said there was more of a challenge to keep a winning tradition when more of the state public junior colleges started picking up the game, especially schools that would go on to be national powers such as Cloud County, Johnson County and Kansas City (Kan.).
"We were a private school with no (athletic) scholarships and a tuition that's significantly higher than the state schools," Sieber said. "That's a challenge that coaches had and still have at Hesston College. As more soccer is being played, the competition really increased."
While at Hesston, he led teams to trips to Argentina four times.
"Night games at Hesston College were a big deal," Sieber said. "We'd have over 600 students and faculty at the games. What else was there to do in Hesston on a Saturday night? I had some wonderful memories of those games."
In 1994, Sieber went to Bethel, which was still a young program.
"I had taken a semester sabbatical from Hesston in the spring of 1994 and was the employee wellness director at Excel Industries, with the assumption I would go back to Hesston College in the fall," Sieber said. "John Zehr, the president of Bethel College approached me personally and said he'd like me to coach the men's team and that they would like to start a women's team and I would coach that a year later."
Sieber said he started recruiting players for the women's team as soon as he got to Bethel. He said a highlight at Bethel was winning a regional game over National University 1-0, then losing to Westmar University in the finals, finishing 14-6-2. His second year with the BC women finished 14-4, reaching NAIA regional play.
He turned the women's team over to an assistant after three years.
"In fairness to the gals, having their own coach would be a better situation for them," Sieber said.
Sieber said he's seen a lot of growth in the level of soccer played from his first years in the sport.
"The level of skill has improved a lot," Sieber said. "There's been a little change in the strategy and tactics used. It's turned a little more into a possession game. As a coach, I never got caught up in the whole possession thing. I think there are a lot more factors in winning than how well you possess the ball."
Sieber returned to Hesston to re-establish the cross country program, which he continues to lead.
"I do like watching some of the European league games or an occasional MLS game," Sieber said. "I occasionally catch a Hesston game. I'm pretty engrossed in the sport of cross country. Obviously the amount of time I have for the sport of soccer has changed some. I haven't been a single-sport dimension person. I haven't met a sport I don't like. It wasn't like I lived soccer 24/7.
"I'm appreciative of the support I've gotten at the institutes I've been a part of and of the support I've gotten from my family."