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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007 08:11 pm

Bringing soccer to Springfield

A motley crew built the foundation for the sport’s local popularity

The original pioneers, the YMCA Soccer Club, in 1968. Ed Cunningham is in the middle of the middle row.
Untitled Document The late 1960s and early ’70s were a time of significant change for Springfield, as its institutions of higher education — Sangamon State University, Lincoln Land Community College, and the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine — took shape. The universities helped make the capital city a more diverse and international community. It was during this time, in 1968, that a couple of Turks, Yavuz Gonulsen and Aydin Gonulsen; a Greek, Harold Christofilakos; and an Englishman, John Watts, led the effort to create the first YMCA soccer team. The founders were a motley group of European expatriates — Greeks, Turks, and South Americans plus a few other nationalities, including three Americans. This group went to Walter Brantley, the YMCA youth liaison, and asked the YMCA to provide a field for the fledging team. Brantley told the group that if they wanted a field they would have to coach youth soccer.
The first year or so, they played on a field, cut with a hand mower and lined by team members, where the Route 66 Drive-In used to be.
The initial group included such individuals as Yavuz Gonulsen, called the grandfather of Springfield soccer; Aydin Gonulsen, the YMCA coordinator after Brantley’s death and subsequently the coach of the Sangamon State soccer team; Watts, who went on to referee high-school games throughout central Illinois; and Christofilakos, who put up the goalposts for the 12 fields at Sangamon State. (Christofilakos’ son Peter subsequently became a standout in both football and soccer at Griffin High School and then a place-kicker for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
The first YMCA program had about 360 youths, with coaches and referees selected from the YMCA men’s soccer team. In 1968 this men’s team not only coached and refereed the YMCA teams but also played competitively against Eastern Illinois, McMurray College, Lincoln College, and other Midwestern schools. Although over age and mostly ranging from the late twenties through the early forties, the team performed well against the youthful college teams because of their soccer experience gained in their native countries. A tight-knit group formed, and when Walter Reed, a Scottish bricklayer, died of a heart attack, the players, many of whom were talented bricklayers and carpenters, came together and helped build a house for Reed’s widow and children. Development of the YMCA program continued during the 1970s — by 1976 the program had grown to field more than 1,200 players on 58 teams, and in 1978 it expanded to 117 teams, 18 divisions, and 3,000 or more players — but the Gonulsens, Watts, and others were not satisfied with the growth of the YMCA soccer program and believed that soccer should become a local high-school sport. In May 1976, the Springfield YMCA Soccer Club proposed to District 186 that it establish a soccer program in the three high schools. After some initial resistance, $3,000 was raised by the YMCA Soccer Club to help to defray the costs of starting the program. Concerns included a lack of coaches, referees, and fields. After the high schools agreed to supply the fields and the YMCA Soccer Club promised referees and coaches, the program was accepted by the high schools.
The YMCA, in conjunction with Sangamon State University, developed the fields next to Sangamon State, and Aydin Gonulsen became the coach for that school’s team, winning numerous trophies and awards for the university. David Hicks became the YMCA coordinator and remained in this position for more than 20 years as the initial program grew and competitive divisions and leagues were founded. In 1975 and 1976 the men’s team played the University of Illinois, ISU, Blackburn College, Peoria, Carl Sandburg College, Lincoln College, Bradley University, Palmer College, the University of Iowa, and Illinois State University. The fall record was 10-0-1. This team, with players from all the world’s continents except Australia and Antarctica, was coached by Yavuz Gonulsen and captained by Aydin Gonulsen. High school soccer in Sangamon County, as well as the programs at Sangamon State, Lincoln Land, and Springfield College, can all trace their start to the YMCA team. Only mentioning a few of the many that helped to develop the program were Yavuz Gonulsen, the grandfather of this program, Aydin Gonulsen, subsequently the coach at SSU and now Blackburn, Christofilakos, who later started in the late 1980s indoor soccer at Soccer World, Watts, who coached and refereed high school teams until his death, and David Hicks, the long-term liaison with the YMCA.
But for the foresight of these individuals and their determination, the support of the YMCA in organizing the program, and Sangamon State’s agreeing to supply fields, Springfield would not have the soccer programs that it now has. High schools in the Springfield area are all now fielding competitive teams as good as any those at any high school in the state. These programs have over the years provided a sport for more than 40,000 boys and girls.

Ed Cunningham is an attorney at Brown, Hay & Stephens. He played soccer at the University of Chicago while attending law school and coached and refereed here for about 20 years. He also served as vice president of the YMCA Soccer Club.


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