This September, Bill Berry ‘67 organized an unofficial 55-year team reunion for the Wheaton men’s soccer team of 1966. The four men who were able to make the trip arrived on campus on Sept. 11 and were honored at halftime of the Thunder game against Concordia University Chicago.
The Wheaton Men’s Soccer team of 1966 was the third soccer team in the college’s history to go undefeated. They set the record for the most wins in a season, winning 11 games, tying 3 and losing none. This beat the old record of 10 wins in one season, set in 1964. In addition, the team set the record for the most goals at that time, scoring 50 goals.
The team shared the 1966 Michigan-Illinois-Indiana Collegiate Soccer Conference (MIICSC) championship with Earlham College and won the first of six consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) mid-East regional titles (Wheaton rejoined the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin, or CCIW, in 1967 after withdrawing in 1960). The 1966 team was inducted into the Wheaton College Athletic Hall of Honor in 1996, the third men’s soccer team to do so.
While only four of the players from the 1966 soccer team were able to attend the reunion, Berry, Andy Johnson ‘67, Ivan Ediger ‘68, and Bob Palacio ‘68 spent the weekend catching up, attending soccer games, and meeting on Zoom with the other 12 teammates who were unable to attend in person.
All four former players came to Wheaton’s soccer team with different paths to the sport. Berry was a missionary kid from Honduras. He played street soccer for many years growing up, in high school for two years, and on the varsity team at Wheaton for all four years. Johnson, a missionary kid in Taiwan, had played in high school for his junior and senior years before arriving at Wheaton.
“I’d never played soccer before,” said Ediger, who was the team’s substitute goalie. “I’d never seen a soccer game before I came to Wheaton.” He admitted that he did not get much playing time, but has zero regrets over joining the team.
Palacio, while not having played any organized soccer, had limited experience playing street soccer on the streets of Argentina, where he grew up. He came to Wheaton at the recommendation of the counselor at his high school in California, who was a Wheaton alum.
“My biggest recollection of when I arrived was Coach Baptista,” Palacio said. “His demeanor was frank and he would point out what was wrong, but he would also be so reassuring at the same time.”
Coach Robert Baptista ‘48 was Wheaton’s first full-time men’s soccer coach. Baptista coached what was then the Crusaders varsity soccer team for 16 seasons as well as assisting the basketball and baseball teams. Baptista once called the 1966 soccer season “the most successful in the [then] 35-year history of intercollegiate soccer at Wheaton. He is honored every year at the September tournament which was named after him in 1997.
The members of the ‘66 team watched Wheaton defeat the Milwaukee School of Engineering Athletics (MSOE), and Wheaton play against Concordia in this year’s Bob Baptista Invitational at Joe Bean Stadium. While the former players admitted that the foot play of the current players was far superior to theirs 55 years ago, the alumni were still proud of their team.
“I think we did have some things that would have challenged the current team,” said Johnson. “We certainly had some players that would challenge them.” The members of the 1966 squad left their soccer careers behind after graduating from Wheaton with the exception of Johnson, who continued playing club soccer until he was 30.
One fond remembrance from the 1966 season came from a match against Lake Forest College. Their opponents had scored a goal during the game, but the referees did not realize it until Wheaton goalie Bill Bott pointed it out. This fluke happened due to a hole later found in the net. After the game, Coach Baptista and the officials went to the Lake Forest team to explain what happened, and they declared the game a tie. The incident became known in Wheaton lore as “the phantom goal.” When the teams played against each other again later in the season, Wheaton won 3-0.
Johnson recalled the way that Baptista brought the team together and mentored the players through stories from his own life.
“Everybody wanted to be in the seats around Coach Baptista,” said Johnson, recalling the bus rides from away games back to campus. “He would talk, not to us, but with us, about life, and money, and his army days. That was one of my favorite memories.”