South Charlotte

'Pioneer' Sabres won only soccer title 40 years ago

In 1971, the South Mecklenburg boys' soccer team didn't have their own uniforms; instead, they wore hand-me-down jerseys from the junior-varsity football team.

The program was just 3 years old, led by coach Denny Baldwin, a New York transplant who played soccer growing up and during his junior and senior years at Pfeiffer University.

Most of the kids hadn't played organized soccer before they joined the team.

"We were literally pioneers in soccer in the high school," said Ed Sykes, now a senior vice president at Bank of America who was a senior defender for the Sabres.

Without real jerseys or much experience, the South Meck Sabres won the state soccer title 40 years ago, beating Concord in the final.

It's still the only state soccer championship the school has won.

In 1972, the Sabres got 18 real soccer jerseys. One year later, they got 18 more.

Baldwin, 71, came to South Meck in 1965 after teaching for four years in Cabarrus County. He taught chemistry and coached the football team only because there wasn't a soccer team.

After two years of coaching football, Baldwin managed to start a soccer team.

Sykes, who joined the team as a sophomore in 1969, said most of the players had little experience. Many were basketball players, he said, but with the success the team was having at the time (the Sabres won state basketball titles in 1970, '71 and '72) it was hard to make the team.

The Sabres lost their first game of the season to Independence, 3-2. They won the next two before falling to East Mecklenburg and Independence again in back-to-back games.

South Meck was 9-5 after the regular season, with three losses coming against East Meck.

In the first round, South Meck played Independence to a 2-2 tie after four periods and two overtime periods. The tie was broken by counting the number of corner kicks each team had throughout the match: the Sabres ended up with a 5-2 advantage.

In the state semifinals, South Meck beat Chapel Hill High 5-1 at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg. The Sabres outshot Chapel Hill 25-6, and John Gwynn, Brad Westmoreland, Larry Jackson, Bill Crowle and Tom Tozer each had a goal.

The next day, South Meck would face Concord in the championship.

"I remember how nervous I was before (the championship game)," said Baldwin. "I don't think I slept a wink the night before we went back there."

South Meck already had played Concord three times that season, winning each game by just one goal.

Sykes, 56, recalls it as a sunny but chilly November day at St. Andrews College. South Meck scored three unanswered goals in the second period, one by Tozer and two by Westmoreland. Then, with just one second remaining in the half, Concord's Bryan Cromer scored on a penalty kick to make it 3-1.

Cromer scored again in the third period and once more in the fourth on another penalty kick, making it a 3-3 tie to force overtime.

The score was still tied after two overtime periods, but South Mecklenburg again had the corner-kick advantage 5-1.

"I remember throwing people into the lake down there," said Baldwin. "I just remember the kids and how happy they were."

Baldwin continued to coach soccer at South Mecklenburg until 1996; he retired from teaching in 1998. He won eight conference championships, was a state runner-up one year and had a career record of 300-91-12. He also coached baseball, cross country and swimming and won another state title in boys' golf.

However, to Baldwin, there was something special about the way that '71 soccer team played together.

"I remember that as being one team that was really close together. They really cared about each other," he said. "They're just fun to be with. Fun to coach."