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Unfinished business is finished

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This year was unlike any other for Roswell soccer coach James Vernon. For one, he had taken a new job as assistant principal at Berrendo Middle School. The job was new and taxing, and his soccer team had been beset by injuries as well as moving up to reclassification to 5A to play teams like Hobbs, Clovis and Carlsbad.

That didn’t matter much to Vernon, because he had built the program on playing any team anywhere at any time and they had played those teams in nonconference anyway. Being a principal and coaching had taken a toll on him as the season went along — he was exhausted at nights, sometimes crashing on the couch and hitting the snooze button on the alarm clock when it was time to go get them the next day at work.

Going into the last week of the season, he felt rejuvenated with a spring in his step because he realized how much he loved soccer and coaching this team, which would turn out to be his final team at Roswell. All Vernon wanted was another chance at the prize — the Blue Trophy — and to do that, his team needed to win.

Vernon felt good that his team had a chance to make the playoffs after his team defeated Carlsbad, 2-0, at Cielo Grande Soccer Complex. In the final game of the season, Roswell had to travel to Clovis and defeat them by two goals to make it into the tournament for the eighth consecutive year.

What Vernon knew — that not many knew — was if his team lost, that was it. There would be no next year for him or the seniors that were graduating this year. Vernon would, in essence, be graduating with them to the next phase of his life. There would be no end of the season meeting about what each player had to work on to get better. The next time Vernon would see his team would be to turn in equipment and at the banquet to celebrate the season before the end of the semester.

The game seemed to be going Roswell’s way as they jumped out to a 2-0 lead to start the game. Then the winds and rains came midway through the first half. After that, the game changed as the field became soggy and sloshy with the Coyotes having a hard time keeping their footing. Clovis capitalized on the field and came back to tie the game, eventually winning it, 6-3.

As the teams shook hands and Vernon talked to his team, it started to hit him that his career as the head soccer coach was over with at Roswell. On the bus ride back home, he sat in silence as he tried to keep the tears from welling up in his eyes. Vernon tried to hide the disappointment in knowing that he would never coach again or have a chance to make it to the tournament with all of the talent they had coming back on a team that finished 10-9-1.

Vernon sat on the bus ride and thought about how far he had brought the program, from when he played for the Coyotes as a player. Vernon played for the Coyotes from ‘89-’92 as a midfielder and was good enough to get a partial scholarship with his twin brother, Robby, at Oklahoma Christian University. James Vernon played three years of college soccer.

“When I played at RHS for four years, we never made it out of the district. I played for Clyde Williamson. He knew nothing about soccer but he learned. The thing I loved about him was his passion, and he was very competitive with his players in drills. Williamson was a basketball player and coach — he learned soccer and fell in love with it.”

James Vernon walked out to practice one day after graduating from college when Williamson asked him to help coach the team. The players started listening to Vernon because he played college soccer. He ended up being an assistant coach from ‘99-2002.

Vernon learned the paperwork and the ins and outs of coaching but had to interview for the job. He interviewed with then-principal Mike Kakuska and assistant principal Brian Shea. Vernon recalls how everything changed when they told him it was his team.

“One of my goals when I first took this job,” Vernon said, “was I wanted Roswell soccer to be respected. I wanted to win district championships and I wanted kids to go to college as my main goal. I had so many great players that didn’t go to college because they didn’t want to. It boggles my mind they were better players than I was.”

James Vernon credits playing in the Roswell Youth Soccer Association and playing games at Del Norte. He remembers a man named Hubert Quintana asking him and his brother to play at the Roswell Youth Soccer Association (RYSA). Quintana talked to his parents, and told them they were good enough to play soccer for RYSA. Jerry Salyards and Mike Determan asked him and his brother, Robby, to play on one of the first travel teams to win a trophy in Albuquerque at a Thanksgiving tournament.

“What RYSA taught me was the basics,” Vernon said. “We were the Arsenal Express. I have so many trophies from those days. I still use some of the things I learned from RYSA that I use when I coach kids. Things like moving without the ball, passing, how to shoot a ball and just movement — that’s where a lot of our success comes from because kids listen to the coaches.”

As the bus rolled home, Vernon thought about what the soccer program has meant to him and his life. The program was started in 1985 and is on the shield he designed. He thought about all of the relationships he had developed over the years with people and families like the Jennings, Gallegos, Popes, Richardsons, Thomas, Garcias, Sifuentes, Ahos, Bravos and Madrid families.

Vernon thought about how he had been adapted as a coach and went from a kick-and-run team that played hard man-to-man defense. He realized how he had softened in the last five years of his coaching career, because in his earlier years, his teams ran, ran, and ran some more. His teams won games early in the season because they were in shape.

“I can tell you that at the beginning of the season,” James Vernon said, “we won a lot of games because we were in better condition and ready to go when the whistle blew. We used to run teams to death.”

Roswell 2013 boys soccer state champions pose for a team picture at the Coyote Den in 2013. (Submitted Photo)

James Vernon walks away with 238 wins, 96 losses and three ties. He has won 11 district championships in 15 years as head coach and brought Roswell their only state title in 2013. He has also won one district, sectional, regional and state Coach of the Year awards.

“I feel like a lot of kids knew,” James Vernon said, “if they wanted to play winning soccer, parents needed to bring them to Roswell, not Goddard.”

One of the things that Vernon regretted was not being able to play a tougher non-conference schedule to compete with Albuquerque Academy, St. Pius X and Los Alamos, the schools that can recruit. James Vernon felt like he had teams good enough to win more than one state title, but they never showed up to play when it mattered most.

It was the second year he switched from man-to-man to a 4-2-3-1 attacking style of play, and zonal defending in 2012. Roswell assistant coach Pete Stover recommended that move against Artesia. Roswell had to win that game by more than five goals to win the district championship. The Bulldogs had never seen that formation before and could not stop it as Roswell won, 7-0.

James Vernon thought about how the athletic director had suspended six of his players on the field moments before they were to play in the quarterfinals against Chaparral. The emotions and loss of the players would be too much for them to overcome, as they would lose to Chaparral, 4-1 in 2012.

As the bus rolls home toward Roswell, James Vernon thinks back with pride to his most special team, the team that gave him his only championship in 2013, when they beat Albuquerque Academy, 1-0. He was upset that the team should have been undefeated and their only blemish was a loss to Hobbs.

In that match, there were only two registered officials and there should have been three. The guy they had on one side was a 70-year-old man and on the other side, a 19-year-old girl that could not keep up with the pace of play according to Vernon. Hobbs exacted revenge by beating them, 8-3, when they played at Roswell.

James Vernon feels like the championship team had a chip on their shoulder and the team was not happy with the way it was handled in 2012.

James Vernon thinks back to the winning goal when he made the decision to substitute for his starters to give them a break to make a final push against Academy for a last 15-minute kick. Brighton Pope pressured the Chargers’ defense and Academy made a mistake and kicked the ball to Ibis Armendariz who crossed the ball to the other side and Diego Aceves, who never uses his head — headed the ball onto the middle of the field and the Chargers’ defender and goalie saw each other come out to get the ball but both backed off. Chris Mesquita headed the ball right past them and walked the ball into the goal and kicked it into the goal.

“It was like a dream come true,” James Vernon said, “winning the state title when you’re not supposed to is awesome. It was a big deal for me and my brother. His brother, Robby was the first person to jump the fence and hug me after we won the title. Me and my brother hugging was all about passion. I knew that the team was special. We were ranked No. 3 in the nation at one point that season. That team refused to lose. It was a team effort.”

One of the hardest things for James Vernon on leaving is knowing the camaraderie and success he shares by his longtime assistant coaches, Pete Stover and Levi Hobson.

For James Vernon, family is going to be on the front burner now with growing daughters, Ava, 11; Lauryn, 10; and Blakely, 5, along with wife Ashley, they are looking forward to spending more time with him.

“This was my dream job,” James Vernon said. “I have done what I set out to do. I won a state title and made this program respectable and my kids have gone to college.”

With the bus rolling home to Roswell, James Vernon knows that no matter what, he has accomplished his goals for himself and for Roswell soccer.