This isn’t a sports story. It’s not a sentimental story. It’s not a “glory days” story.
It’s a story of a city, Wheeling, West Virginia, whose core is made of gold.
On Novemember 9th, 1991, at Wheeling Island Stadium, the Wheeling Park High School Patriot boy’s soccer team won its first of two (2001) state championships. It was won in thrilling fashion: 3-2, (5-4 penalty kicks), over Huntington St. Joseph’s. The team was led by senior Kenny Zinsky, a two-time High School All-American, who netted 88 goals in his three year career at Park. The team was ranked 15th in the Nation by USA Today.
I was a junior center-midfielder on the ’91 team. I also left Wheeling after high school, only to return in 2007. In the near decade since, I have seen a lot of change in my hometown. As an administrator at West Liberty University, I have experienced some of that change first hand. Recently, I was refelcting on the 25th anniversary of our state championship and couldn’t help to see the many similarities between that team and our town- namely, characteristics that both help Wheeling shine today and give it hope for the future.
You can imagine how off-the-radar soccer was in the early 1990’s. Football was king, still is, but at that time it was the only game in town, and Park’s team was awesome. Boogie Johnson and Mike McLeod led their team to a state title game as well, just weeks after ours. (See Weelunk’s story about that team here: Ohio Valley Pride: Then and Now. Yes, written by Matt DiLorenzo, who as a place kicker and a striker was on both teams that fall.) We soccer players were the step-children of the WPHS sports scene. In addition to being a less visible sport, there were serious shenanigans throughout the season. However, we overcame the challenges – those placed before us as well as those brought upon ourselves – and played at a very high level, surprising most.
Doesn’t that sound kind of like our Wheeling, who has had overwhelming challenges handed to her, but has also set up some of those hurdles herself?
Due to a number of factors, probably mostly due to our reputation as ‘The Outsiders’, our team was tight. The proof lies in the fact that most players have stayed in touch over the the years, and many are very close friends to this day. In my case, two of my best friends then and today were on the team and moved back to Wheeling the same month that I did. This past Oglebayfest, while celebrating fall at a cabin, one could count five members of the team at that same party.
Anyone who knows Wheeling can attest to the truth that all of Wheeling’s natives are loyal to each other and to their home town. Whether they live here or away, Wheeling-ites keep in touch, they support family, they remain friends, and while they are playing defense against negative streotypes, they are celebrating and elevating and exclaiming their hometown’s greatness past and present.
Coach Eric from the bench, Kenny Zinsky up front, Sean Stake in the goal, Greg Haworth at sweeper – these were our leaders on and off the field. All four guys came from different backgrounds, and have since gone different ways, but all brought their own unique form of leadership, and luckily for us, respected each other and led as a team.
In 2016 Wheeling’s leadership canvas is a mixure of past and new, young and old, transplants and natives. From my perspective it’s working – kind of like a good gumbo: every single ingredient on its own is good, maybe even great. But blend them together over a medium-hot fire (a community rallied and motivated to be better) and you get something that far exceeds the collection of individual ingredients!
4. Dreaming Big
The previous year, as a huge underdog and much more rag-tag than many of our rivals, we came up short in the semi-finals. When practice began in the summer of 1991 our coach didn’t just encourage us to dream, he demanded it. This season was going to be “The Ride of Our Life”, and we were going to win the state championship. We dreamed it, believed it, and were committed to making it happen.
Today Wheeling is peeking its head out of a decades-long valley of gloom. Population loss, job exodus and decayed infrastructure color the current landscape. But there’s light on the horizon. The Health Plan is coming, downtown housing is a reality, and younger people are staying and coming back, not only because of family, but because it’s cool again to live in Wheeling. Why? I belive it’s because people started talking about things in a more positive way, with a more optimistic attitide, and there is a freedom – and indeed an imperative – to dream big.
What could Wheeling be like in the future?
5. je ne sais quoi
At the end of the day, the 1991 team was great. Wheeling is great. But why? What is it about this place? There is something very special about Wheeling and I argue that we can’t identify what the hell it its. For me, I have a vision that below the top soil, below the abandoned mine shafts, deep down in the earth there is a golden core, from which elements like kindness, positivity, creativity, leadership, loyalty, and a desire to WIN … are all blended together, rising up from the deep and seeping through cracks to the surface, to be breathed in by Wheeling and her people.
It was channeled by the 1991 team.
It is being channeled by our 2016 team.
I look forward to updating you in 2051 – after 25 more years in the glow of in this golden core, God willing.