BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
A unique set of circumstances allowed Peter LaBarge, who was later named Western Washington University Male Athlete of the Century for 1900-99 and inducted into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000, to play men's soccer for the Vikings and lead them to the two best seasons in program history.
Having just completed a record-breaking football career with the Vikings from 1985 to 1988 as a punter and placekicker, LaBarge was attracting some attention from the National Football League during the summer of 1989.
WWU soccer coach Kevin Quinn, while wishing LaBarge well in his quest to play professional football, could be forgiven for having mixed feelings.
Quinn knew that if LaBarge's NFL hopes did not materialize, two things would happen. LaBarge would return to school to complete his degree in recreation and he would play soccer for the Vikings.
Soccer had always been LaBarge's favorite sport, one he had played since age seven, being a standout for his father's Northshore select teams, playing for F.C. Seattle and numerous indoor teams. He had not taken up football until his junior year at Woodinville High School.
But LaBarge, who had not played organized soccer for four years, had doubts.
I was apprehensive about even making the team," he explained, "but I went to the tryouts and things went well."
That was a considerable understatement.
Quinn said that he knew LaBarge was a special player from, "the first time I saw him shoot a ball. He was strong with either foot and he struck the ball well nearly every single time and was accurate."
LaBarge came close to his NFL dream, getting tryouts with the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Stealers, but was not signed. And Quinn's assessment proved more than accurate.
Provides Vikings with incredible goal-scoring threat
LaBarge scored a school-record and conference-leading 20 goals for the Vikings in 1989. That was as many as WWU's leading scorer in each of the previous four years had scored combined. His five goals in one game versus Menlo CA on Sept. 16 would have led Western in scoring in six of its previous nine seasons as a varsity sport.
"We had gone through seasons where we didn't score 20 goals as a team," Quinn said. "Every time he struck a ball right, which he did often, you could hear it all the way from the bench and you just saw how that ball just moved and it was behind the goalie before you could react."
"What he (LaBarge) brought to the team was a real goal-scoring threat. He was the guy you could count on to score goals and when we had set pieces and dead ball situations, Peter was all over it ... He always put himself in good scoring position and we had the players around him who could give him opportunities to score. You get the right players around someone like that and you've got something."
And Western did indeed have something. Led by LaBarge, the Vikings scored 54 goals, compared to 18 in 1988 and 17 in 1987.
Paced by its revamped offense, WWU posted a 16-6-1 record that included a 13-game winning streak and made the school's first appearance at the NAIA National Tournament.
The Vikings won the District 1 championship, snapping a string of 14 straight titles by Simon Fraser BC, then earned a national berth by winning the Area I crown with a 2-0 victory at Warner Pacific OR on Nov. 11, 1989. The 16 wins were a program best and Western won the Northwest Collegiate Soccer Conference Cascade Division with a 6-0 record.
"That was probably the most fun I had in college," said LaBarge, who was named a third-team NAIA All-American. "The fans were going crazy, knowing that the soccer team had never made it to the playoffs, and then to win district and then the area title and then going to nationals ... it was unbelievable."
At the district playoffs, Western upset nationally No.5-ranked Whitworth, 3-2, in a semifinal, and won the final, 2-1, over Evergreen. In the area title game against No.14 Warner Pacific at Beaverton, Ore., LaBarge scored one of the Vikings' two goals in the shutout victory.
At nationals, Western, seeded No.11 in the 12-team tourney, fell to No.2 Rockhurst MO, 3-1, and Midwestern State TX, 4-2, in pool play.
Western's biggest regular-season win was 2-1 over national powerhouse Simon Fraser, the Vikings' first victory over the Clan in school history. WWU trailed 1-0, but got two goals in the last seven minutes.
"Peter brought a lot of things to the team," said Quinn. "He was easily accepted. He had a great attitude. He always accepted what his role was and knew when it was time to give another player a chance."
"It was a really good mix of guys and we all look back on it as being one of the best times of our lives. The guys were honest with each other, trusted each other, were great competitors on the field and took care of one another. They were as quirky as can be, there were so many personalities. Just a fun bunch of guys who just loved each other. It was the best team that I've ever been associated with."
Shockingly gets another year of eligibility
Much to the dismay of opposing coaches, it was found that LaBarge still had a quarter of eligibility left because he had not attended school during winter quarter of his junior year.
"After the 1989 season was over, we evaluated what Peter's status was and realized that he could compete in 1990 because he was still within his 15 quarters to play sports" said Quinn. "I remember being in a league coaches meeting and the coaches saying how glad they were that Peter was gone, and seeing their reaction after telling them that might not be true."
LaBarge said, "I specifically remember a conversation with Kevin, and saying that I would like to help out as an assistant coach because I still had a quarter of school to finish up. He said, `How about this? I've got one better. I just found out that you are actually eligible to play.' I remember saying there is no possible way. But because I'd taken that quarter off and had done a makeup quarter during the summer which didn't count toward my eligibility. Obviously, I was shocked."
With LaBarge still in the fold, Western's results in 1990 were nearly the same as the previous season. The Vikings scored a school-record 57 goals and won the district title, blanking Simon Fraser 2-0 in the championship game and got to host the Area I contest, again versus Warner Pacific.
Unfortunately, the Vikings' home field, located at that time behind Carver Gymnasium (where WWU had won 15 of its last 16 games), was made unplayable by the combination of a severe rain storm and a club lacrosse game. Bellingham's Civic Stadium was unavailable, so the contest was played at the relatively new Northwest Soccer Fields, which were located halfway between Bellingham and Ferndale.
"The biggest advantage we had was playing at home," LaBarge said of not being able to play on the campus pitch. "The field was not quite regulation size and then you bring in all those crazy fans and they start to heckle people. I'm still best friends right now with some of the guys who were the leaders of that posse. I still hear from opposing players who say how awful it was to play at Western. It was good times."
Conditions were terrible the day of the area final with stiff winds which reached 50 miles per hour. That made it difficult for the team going against the wind to clear the ball out of its own end.
"We played in the worst conditions you can play in," Quinn said. "The wind wasn't gusting, it was constant. Both teams struggled."
Warner Pacific got the game-winner with four minutes left in overtime on a header of a corner kick. The Vikings nearly tied the game in the final seconds on a shot from 10 yards out that the Knights' goalkeeper knocked down and fell on as time expired.
LaBarge scored Western's only goal on a penalty kick six minutes into the second half. Warner Pacific had scored three minutes into the game aided by the gusting wind. WWU did not have a shot in the first half while playing against the wind.
"The game slipped away from us when we didn't score another goal (after LaBarge's) in the second half," Quinn said. "We weren't patient enough and didn't create enough opportunities. It was heartbreaking to see the quality seniors we had end their careers on that kind of game."
"We were excited about going back (to nationals in 1990), because we knew that we had a team that could do it. And circumstances didn't allow it, the weather flooding our field out ... I just wish we could have gone again because of having that experience (of 1989). I don't think we would have won a national championship, but we would have gotten better results."
Western finished 16-4-0 after receiving two forfeits from Warner Pacific, which was found to have used an ineligible player. The Vikings were ranked as high as fifth in the NAIA National Poll.
Among the season highlights were three victories over Simon Fraser. One in particular stood out, Western rebounding from a three-goal halftime deficit to beat the Clan on the road.
"If you ask any of the players from that team what game they remember the most, that would be at Simon Fraser when we trailed 4-1 at halftime," Quinn said. "And then Peter came out and scored three goals, a hat trick, and Dennis (Lapchis) scored the game winner in overtime."
LaBarge finished the season with 21 goals and 47 points, breaking his own school records set the year before, and was named District 1 Player of the Year and a second-team NAIA All-American.
Hall of Famer in soccer and football
LaBarge was the only student-athlete in WWU history to earn All-America honors in two distinct sports. He also was the WWU Male Athlete of the Year a school-record three times, the honor first being given in 1954.
LaBarge's career in either soccer or football by itself would have made him a candidate for hall of fame honors. He was the only player in Western football history to be named to the all-century team at two positions - first-team punter and second-team kicker.
"Pete was a great kicker and a great punter," said Terry Todd, who was LaBarge's position coach. "The sport is so demanding that it's hard to do both."
LaBarge not only did both, he excelled at both, awarded all-league honors as both a punter and placekicker in 1986, 1987 and 1988. In his senior season, LaBarge led the nation in punting with a 42.5-yard average to earn NAIA Division II All-America first-team honors.
He set NAIA national records for field goals attempted in a game (8) and career (78) and established 14 school records and tied another, including career points (204), best career punting average (39.8), longest field goal (52 yards), and longest punt (62 yards). He finished as the Columbia Football Association's all-time leading kick scorer with 204 points.
LaBarge had been recruited out of high school in football by one Division I school -- Oregon State. He chose Western because of the opportunity to play right away.
And he did. During his career, LaBarge made 72 of 76 extra point tries and 44 of 78 field goal attempts. Twice, he was nationally ranked in kick scoring - sixth as a freshman in 1985 (6.1 points a game) and seventh as a senior in 1988 (7.7).
LaBarge's individual heroics came during a time of modest team success. The Vikings were 2-6-1 and 2-7 his first two years. Their 4-3-2 record his junior year was Western's first winning season in a decade. And a five-game winning streak, gave them a 5-4 record his senior year.
"If we weren't doing very well ... I had a lot of opportunities (to punt and try field goals)," said LaBarge. "That was the way those seasons were. I got a lot of chances. But the ultimate goal was to win, so it was frustrating."
Still, LaBarge provided several of the highlights. He kicked five field goals in 36-22 win over nationally ranked Puget Sound in 1985, and in 1987, he booted a 36-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to defeat nationally ranked Western Oregon, 16-14.
"He was a guy that handled his success well," recalled Todd. "He was always calm. Confidence is a tremendous asset for a kicker, and he had a lot of confidence in himself."
Cherished time at WWU
LaBarge's time at Western was quite a kick. But it was his two years as a Viking soccer player that he will never forget.
"The dynamics of those teams and the culture that Kevin created," said LaBarge. "We all just trusted each other and really enjoyed being around each other. To have the success and the way we went about it, and the bonds. I still talk today to quite a few of those guys, and we pick up right where we left off ... And I see it in my business and with my children's teams, when they have chemistry and when they don't. When you do, people care about each other in a different way than just the sport. There is a different sense of camaraderie. People are happier and tend to back each other up, and I think that was a big part of those teams."
"I don't necessarily think we were the most talented, but we worked hard and were there for each other. It was awesome."
Today, Peter and wife Nichelle have two children, who each attend Sumner High School. Daughter Peyton, a senior, and son Alec, a sophomore. Both are soccer players, but Alec's passion is golf.
The 49-year-old LaBarge is the district manager at Anixter, a telecommunications and security distributor in Seattle where he heads a sales team of 16. He has been there the last nine years and a part of that industry for 25 years overall. LaBarge also is in his fifth year as an assistant coach at Sumner High in, as you would guess, soccer and football.
LaBarge credits three professors in Western's recreation program for his business success.
"Ron Riggins is the one who pulled me aside and I opened up to him. And then I met with him, Charles Sylvester and Jim Moore. They were a great group of people and they allowed me to get into that major and it was by far the best decision that I ever made. The things I've done and who I am, I owe so much to them."
"I cherish Western. The school has definitely been a very special place to me. The athletics staff certainly became a family to me with (women's basketball coach) Lynda (Goodrich), (assistant women's basketball coach) Carmen (Dolfo), and (men's basketball coach) Brad (Jackson). Walking in those doors of Carver Gym was a special thing for me."
Quinn, who was named district and Area Coach of the Year in 1989, has been an elementary school teacher in the Bellingham School District for the last 16 years, three at Happy Valley and the last 13 at Carl Cozier.
Another WWU hall of fame player on the 1989 and 1990 teams was midfielder Tom Venable, who received All-America honorable mention both years.
Other all-stars on those teams included defender Steve Bowmer, forward Dennis Lapchis, forward Cliff Potter and defender Steve Starcevich.
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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