Andrew Dys

Teaching the will to win

Northwestern boys' soccer coach Dom Wren shares a light moment with some of his players during practice on Friday. Wren, a former Winthrop player who hails from England, guided the Trojans to a state championship last year and has them back in the title game tonight against Spring Valley. The Trojans are 25-3 on the season.
Northwestern boys' soccer coach Dom Wren shares a light moment with some of his players during practice on Friday. Wren, a former Winthrop player who hails from England, guided the Trojans to a state championship last year and has them back in the title game tonight against Spring Valley. The Trojans are 25-3 on the season.

The 29-year-old face of York County sports today, the only day that matters, was crimson Friday night.

From sun, and wind.

And toughness.

Dom Wren paced, cantered around a classroom, and 50 eyes of teenage boys followed his every move. Nobody so much as coughed.

Wren stood an ocean from what was home in England, where soccer is not sport but religion. Now in Rock Hill, where football has been the unchallenged king forever, he challenged his Northwestern High School boys soccer team to be the best tonight.

He made no promises.

He asked for their best.

"You'll get what you deserve," Wren told the 25 players about what will happen in tonight's game. Skinny kids and ropy-muscled kids sat enraptured. Stout kids and whippet-thin kids. "Go out there," Wren said. "Go for the throat."

"Yes, sir," came the call in unison from the team.

Tonight is the state AAAA boys soccer championship, the biggest game of the year.

Northwestern has been in the title game five times now in six years. Last season, in Wren's first season as coach, all he did was win the state title.

This guy is tough. His eyes look through you. His shins are a jigsaw puzzle of scars from a lifetime of soccer in English schools, college soccer at Winthrop University, where he was a buzzsaw, and club teams. He was a defensive player who received no adulation but hammered opponents into submission.

He willed wins.

Just like he wills wins from his soccer team from Rock Hill, a blue-collar, hard-scrabble city in its heart.

Yes, soccer. Throw any preconceived notions out the door about soccer being a less-than-tough sport with Wren and his squad around. He comes from England, where the hardest men play soccer.

At halftime of the game Northwestern won Wednesday on the road against Mauldin to qualify for tonight's state championship, Wren told his team that they came from Rock Hill, where mill workers built the town through labor.

"People in your town won't let you roll over," Wren told the team. "Stand up and be counted!"

He could have been talking about industrial Liverpool, England, or Manchester of soccer fame and the fight songs his players all know by heart. But he was talking about industrial Rock Hill, where many of these players' fathers and grandfathers worked hands to bone in cotton mills.

Northwestern won that night. Again.

Grabbing headlines

Soccer has crept up, quietly, to grasp at least a share of the sports limelight in this city, like a fist around the neck.

The biggest fist is Wren's.

Look around. In just a few years, soccer has gone from an afterthought in York County to hundreds in youth leagues: More than 800 kids signed up this year for a Rock Hill league alone. Rock Hill spent $12 million on the stunning Manchester Meadows soccer complex that opened last June.

Football still has the big juice in Rock Hill, even Wren said he knows that, but you can't argue winning like Northwestern's tradition now is. Make room at the table, football.

When Wren was announced as coach a couple of summers ago, the story ran on the third page of The Herald's sports section. No picture.

Thursday night at a restaurant, tacked onto the wall was a bunch of The Herald's recent soccer articles. Wren's picture was on the front of the sports section.

He was unfazed.

"It's these kids that play, and win," Wren said.

Wren came to America because, "I didn't want to be 40 and sitting in the pub." He won a state title last season, but he demands more.

Tonight, even though the game is in Columbia, soccer rules sports in this football town. There will be a few thousand fans at tonight's game. In December 2001, when Northwestern played for a state football title at the huge University of South Carolina football stadium, several thousand fans went. It seemed like all of Rock Hill went that day. I sat in the middle of thousands and wrote that day about the love of community and football and sport.

Tonight against Spring Valley will be no different.

Just the ball will be round, not pointed. Soccer, not football.

Nothing but their best

The English coach with the steel gaze will pace and allow nothing less than the best effort, and his team will say in unison, "Yes, sir."

Wren teaches physical education at Sullivan Middle School for his day job. His boss, principal Bob Heath, asked him last year after the state title: "What do you do now?"

Wren didn't answer.

I will answer for him.

Win another one.

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