Dec. 13, 2013
PORTLAND, Ore. -
by Evan O'Kelly, Media Relations Intern, Great Northwest Athletic Conference
Travis Connell grew up in Oak Harbor, Wash., with soccer in his blood for as long as he can remember. As a kid his summers consisted of soccer camps, none more memorable than the one that was run by Cliff McCrath and his players from Seattle Pacific University.
"I became really familiar with the team at a young age from all of those camps," Connell commented. "My parents went to SPU, and they would take me down to games in the `80s when the team was really strong and winning championships."
In 1985, Connell was a budding middle school star, honing his skills on the pitch as his vision of one day playing at SPU began to come into focus. "It was on my radar from a young age," Connell said with regard to the prospect of becoming a part of SPU's program.
Connell's parents continued to make the occasional 100-minute drive from their home on Whidbey Island south to the Emerald City that year to ensure their son received an adequate dosage of collegiate soccer at the highest level. Little did Connell know, however, that he was experiencing his first encounters with an individual he would ultimately share several parallels with in life.
THE SPU CONNECTION
Chuck Sekyra laced up his boots at Seattle Pacific for the first time in 1985, kicking off what would turn out to be an historic freshman campaign. "I could tell right away we were going to be a good team," Sekyra commented about his first impressions at SPU.
Not only were the Falcons good, they were dominant. SPU won six games by five goals or more en route to a 16-3-0 record heading into the postseason. From there, SPU rolled to its third overall NCAA championship and second in three years. Not surprisingly, the following year saw equal success as SPU won its second-straight national title.
Sekyra started on both national championship teams, helping SPU outscore opponents 148-37 over the two seasons. "It was wonderful to come in and have a career start off like that," Sekyra reflected. "It was a dream come true."
Meanwhile, Connell looked on as the very players who he learned his craft from during summer camps had earned the ultimate glory of not one but two NCAA titles. While Sekyra never influenced Connell personally as a summer camp coach, the two would inevitably cross paths later on down the road in their soccer careers.
Connell's decision to attend SPU was a natural fit, as he began his own collegiate career in 1991 in the Falcons' program under McCrath. "Going to SPU was fantastic, it was the perfect school for me," Connell commented about his alma mater. "I got to play soccer at a high level with my brother and two closest friends from high school, I met my wife there, and it had the educational structure I wanted."
Witnessing the overwhelming success that SPU floundered in during his childhood, Connell knew deep down that there were possibilities for similar success for his own Falcons team. He soon became a starter and began to reach the verge of the highest level as SPU made the NCAA quarterfinals and then semifinals in his first two seasons.
In 1993, the most important goal of Connell's career came with his team on the cusp of elimination in the NCAA semifinal match, as the Falcons had battled into overtime only to fall behind 5-3 to Florida Tech. With 1:06 left on the clock, Connell found the net, and then watched as SPU miraculously tied the score with one second remaining to send the match to a shootout. "I ended up shooting twice in the shootout, which tells you just how wild that game was," Connell commented about the marathon PK rally. "I think it was the next day by the time it was over, it was definitely after midnight."
And as a new day broke, the Falcons emerged the victor and were headed to their second-straight national championship match. With a 1-0 victory over Southern Connecticut, it was Connell's turn to hold up the national championship trophy, reifying an accomplishment and emotion he had continually witnessed within the SPU soccer culture growing up.
After playing a season professionally in 1988, Sekyra received an opportunity to coach at a local high school in the Seattle area as he remained close to the SPU program and family. This time, it was Sekyra who looked on as Connell continued a winning legacy that the former had helped establish.
"That was such a great team, and I kept thinking, `those guys just have to win it,'" Sekyra commented on the '93 championship team. "After the run we had we almost felt like it was overdue, and that team Travis played on may have been the most talented team ever at SPU."
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Flash forward to 2008. Sekyra was once again sporting the crimson of SPU, but that time he was pacing the sidelines in Falcon-themed rain gear and a well broken-in cap. He was anxiously clutching a white board as he watched his women's soccer team take on West Florida in the NCAA Division II national title game. SPU had won 10-straight games and Sekyra had an all-too-familiar feeling in his gut. "That team in 2008 believed it was going to win that game no matter what," Sekyra said. "It was a feeling I remembered having in '86 when we made it back to the championships and thought, `there's no way we are going to lose this game.'"
Sure enough, SPU held on for a 1-0 victory, giving the school its first-ever women's soccer title and the second soccer championship in Great Northwest Athletic Conference history. "Honestly it means so much more to win a championship as a coach than as a player," Sekyra commented on the victory. "It gave me the chance to take part in the players' joy, and that was really special to me."
Once again, Connell watched as Sekyra took home a championship for SPU, but 13 years after his collegiate playing career ended it was through the eyes of being the head coach at Western Washington University, one of SPU's conference opponents.
Nearly a decade after Connell hoisted the championship trophy as a junior at SPU, he found himself with a sudden and unique opportunity to take over the head coaching duties at WWU. "I was helping out (head coach) Brad Swanson, who invited me there," Connell said of a good friend who extended a coaching opportunity to him. "When he left and asked me to take over, I was surprised and it wasn't planned, but I couldn't be more thankful to have had the opportunity."
It was that very opportunity to begin his head coaching career that sparked the formal introduction of Connell and Sekyra, as the two became acquainted during their first season of work in the GNAC.
"I met some of the players at SPU during the camps I went to, but I never met Chuck," Connell recalled of his youth.
"I met Travis when he took the job at Western," Sekyra commented, adding with a chuckle, "I didn't think much of (the connection) at the time, I was just trying to get my own program up and running in my first season."
Helping with Sekyra's effort to restructure the SPU program was yet another Falcon alumnus who had experience as a player amidst SPU's tradition of success. Mark Collings was a 1999 graduate of SPU, who began his coaching career as an assistant on the men's side at his alma mater.
Collings recalled memories of his freshman campaign at SPU in 1995, a season he shared as a teammate of Connell's after the latter suffered a broken foot that gave him an extra year of eligibility. "Travis had a tall presence, was very skilled and understood the game really well," Collings commented on his first impressions of Connell. "He was a really good resource and had seen everything after having success at the highest level."
As a young player Collings looked up to Connell, saying, "Travis is a really thoughtful guy and I always enjoyed talking with him. He always had valuable insights."
While the overwhelming success of a national title evaded Collings during his SPU playing career, he had become a co-captain by his senior season and had developed numerous lifelong friends. One of those connections was Greg Brisbon, who transferred to SPU for his junior and senior seasons.
"Mark and I were good friends both on and off the field," Brisbon recalled about the bond the two shared as teammates at SPU. "I remember going to his house that he had on campus all the time and hanging out with him."
Brisbon is now the men's soccer coach at WWU, a place he ended up at after befriending Connell towards the end of his collegiate career. "Travis and I played together in Bellingham for a summer during my last year at SPU," Brisbon remembers. "We both played in the same professional indoor league for a season before it folded, and I decided to move to Bellingham and coach."
When Connell began as an assistant at WWU in 2000, he took Brisbon with him and the two have developed the men's and women's programs in tandem ever since.
THRIVING IN GNAC COUNTRY
In the latest edition of the Connell-Sekyra marquee, 2013 was no down year as their respective women's teams were frontrunners all season in the GNAC. Western Washington twice downed SPU by the score of 2-1 during the regular season, as WWU cruised to its second-straight conference title. The teams advanced to the GNAC tournament championship match, battling to a 1-1 draw in double overtime, and it was the Falcons who emerged victorious in a penalty kick shootout to grab the tournament title and an automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs. WWU received the No. 2 seed and hosting rights in the West Region and in a seemingly prescribed match, SPU advanced to face WWU in round two after knocking off Sonoma State. This time, it was Connell's turn to leave Sekyra in the rearview mirror as the Vikings ended SPU's season with a 2-0 victory.
Connell didn't stop there, as he piloted the Vikings into their first-ever Final Four. It was there that WWU's best-ever season came to an end, as the Vikings lost in overtime, ironically to the very school that SPU defeated for it's 2008 national title - West Florida.
Today, Sekyra, Connell, Collings and Brisbon all have their programs near the top of the conference. All compete with a friendly yet serious mindset, and they interact regularly outside of soccer as well.
"Mark and I talk at least once a week, and we are still really good friends," Brisbon commented regarding his relationship with Collings. "The games against each other are always something we look forward to and while it's not always fun beating a good friend, we have a good competitive relationship."
Connell shares a similar sense of respect towards Sekyra and the development of their own competitive relationship.
"Coaching in the same league as Chuck has been fantastic," Connell said regarding Sekyra's influence. "He has attained such a high level of excellence over so many years and has brought consistency to that program that is almost unmatched across the country."
Additionally, Connell attributes much of what he has learned about the life of a coach to the example set by Sekyra. "I didn't spend much time as an assistant, and I had to learn on the run," Connell commented regarding his coaching career beginning at the ripe age of 25. "Chuck might be the best person to study and has helped my career, and I'm fortunate to have that relationship."
"We play a very different style than they do at Western, but Travis and his staff are really good at what they do," Sekyra commented. "The programs we have developed in our time and the head-to-head matches are really good for the conference and the region as a whole."
While each enjoyed success as a player at Seattle Pacific - some as teammates - it was coaching that ultimately brought the four together and connected their individual relationships to their alma mater.
In 2013, Collings was the GNAC Coach of the Month for October after leading the Falcons to an undefeated month and a second-place overall finish in the conference standings. Brisbon piloted the WWU men to an impressive 11-4-3 finish in his first season as a head coach, including a 3-0 victory over powerhouse Simon Fraser. Connell was named GNAC Coach of the Year on the women's side for the third time after helping the Vikings record the best season in program history.
As for Sekyra, nothing else compares to reaching the top as a coach in 2008. "It was the greatest moment, outside of my daughter's birth, in my life to see the looks on the players' faces in 2008," Sekyra said. "You can't replace how happy they were with anything, and I am thankful I had a chance to be a part of that."