GREENSBORO — Matt Vaughn had no idea what he was getting into.
A few students in his social studies class at Dudley were members of the soccer team, and they invited him to practice with them one day this fall — two days before their first scheduled match of the season.
When Vaughn got there, he was met with a strange request. Would you be our coach? And oh, by the way, we haven’t won a game in three years.
Vaughn, a 28-year-old with his fourth child on the way, wasn’t so sure this job was for him. He played at Grimsley in the late 1990s under Herk DeGraw but had never really considered coaching, particularly not at a school where, like many, soccer is light years behind football and basketball on the athletic pecking order.
But how can you say no to a group with such enthusiasm?
“They had a lot of hope that this team was different,” Vaughn said.
It didn’t take Vaughn long to realize he wasn’t at Grimsley anymore, Toto. When a team has been losing for this long, players come to expect the worst.
Vaughn, who remembers beating the Panthers 10-0 while at Grimsley, tried to push buzz phrases like “culture of winning.” Try explaining that to a team whose practice policy the last few years was “come if you can.”
With a nonexistent budget, even something as simple as soccer balls were a luxury. The Panthers had four of them to start the season, and two were Vaughn’s. A former coach donated a few game-worn balls, but “after a couple weeks, they’d all popped,” Vaughn said. “They were that old.”
The athletic department eventually donated $200 to the cause, and when 10 new balls arrived at the school last month, the Panthers cradled them like Christmas presents.
The losses continued to mount. When half the team didn’t show up at practice midway through the season, Vaughn just about reached the end of his rope. He made the AWOL players run sprints after their next game.
And then more sprints.
And then more, until they were doubled over.
But even in those low moments, there was hope. Junior Sam Lugor, a soccer novice who split his time between this team and cross-country, was not required to endure this punishment, but he asked if he could run with his teammates anyway. It was a crawl-before-you-walk reality check for Vaughn, who decided to get more supportive in his teaching and shift the emphasis from record to progress.
A win sure would be nice, though. After a flat showing in their third-from-final game, Vaughn huddled the team at the next practice and had each player spit into the middle.
“We should not like the taste of losing, because we’re a better team than this,” Vaughn told them, repeating a mantra he’d used all season.
Dudley’s last real shot came in its home finale against Morehead, also in the midst of a down season. As they had several times, the Panthers jumped out to an early lead. Then Morehead stormed back, and Vaughn had visions of all the collapses his team had suffered already.
When the scoreboard finally read 0:00 next to Dudley 4, Morehead 2, “there’s never been a more euphoric or galvanizing moment in high school sports,” Vaughn said.
Players hugged, shook their opponents’ hands, then hugged some more. They doused Vaughn with the water cooler, and as he shivered in a short-sleeve shirt on a cold October night, he couldn’t stop smiling.
The Panthers’ final game was against Northern Guilford, a team they lost to handily earlier in the season. They lost again this time, but “you could tell a difference,” Vaughn said.
It was a one-goal game until the final 20 seconds. The bus ride home to Dudley was a party, with players roasting each other and relishing the strides they’d made together. Two of them, Juan Lopez and Iczar Mendoza, would soon be named all-conference.
They’ve got fund-raising plans to update their field, and their schedule will likely expand along with their roster next season.
One player sat quietly, almost annoyed by the festivities.
“I don’t know why you guys are so happy,” said Sam Lugor, the kid who volunteered to run with his teammates. “We lost the game.”
“My (assistant) coach and I looked at each other,” Vaughn said, “and said, ‘There’s our captain for next year.’ ”
Contact Tom Keller at
373-7034 or tom.keller