UNLV soccer returns to roots

It would have been much easier with one of those fancy motorized machines that can lay up to 2,000 square meters of turf per day without one worker breaking a sweat.

But then what about the wheelbarrow races?

Rich Ryerson wouldn’t give any of it back for the comforts of modern-day technology. He wouldn’t trade any of the long hours and sweltering summer days he and coaches and teammates and friends spent placing 1-foot-by-3-foot pieces of sod into the ground back in 1983, wouldn’t for a second regret the labor and pain it took to build UNLV soccer its on-campus home.

“We were all on our hands and knees making it happen, having wheelbarrow races with dirt from one end of the field to the other,” Ryerson said. “People from town helped. It was a real community effort. There was a lot of pride in UNLV athletics back then.

“I’m starting to sense that same kind of feeling again.”

Here is what UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood did when naming Ryerson the school’s men’s soccer coach in April: He hired loyalty, commitment, history, a passion for all things scarlet and gray.

Ryerson has an enthusiasm for UNLV athletics rivaled by few and hopes to return soccer to a lofty place that he helped create in the early to mid-1980s.

His team hosts Mount St. Mary’s (Md.) at 7 on Friday night in what can hardly be described as just another late September nonconference match.

Mount St. Mary’s is coached by Rob Ryerson, matching two of four brothers who left their home in Maryland to play at UNLV. Rich owns the school record for matches started and played (84). Rob owns the record for goals (67) and points (159). Kenny and Tim Ryerson followed as Rebels.

The entire family is expected to attend Friday’s match at Peter Johann Memorial Field, the same venue where Rob and Rich knelt again and again to place those small squares of sod. Their parents will no doubt try to find a place in the middle of the stands so as to cheer both coaching sons.

“We’ve had a trophy made that one of us will have on our desk Monday morning,” Rich said. “It has both our schools’ logos and the date and says, ‘East meets West.’ That’s just for he and I.”

Rob said: “We are very close and have competed at everything our entire lives — from playing in the front yard as kids all the way to professional soccer. Coaching against each other is new for us. I’m really proud of him for being given this opportunity and excited to bring my team out to UNLV, the place I gained my identity in the sport.”

There is a bigger picture here. UNLV on Oct. 1 will induct its Hall of Fame class for 2010, and included among those being honored is the 1985 men’s soccer team, which went 18-2-2, was ranked fourth nationally and advanced to an NCAA regional final before losing to eventual champion UCLA.

Rob Ryerson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998 and whose No. 10 is retired at UNLV, became the Rebels’ only first-team All-American in soccer that season, while Rich was a second-team all-conference pick.

Those were great times for the sport here.

For most sports.

“We went to school at a time when the football team had Randall Cunningham at quarterback, when the basketball team had Jerry Tarkanian as its coach, when baseball was being led by Fred Dallimore,” Rich said. “I don’t want to live in the past, but there was an exciting, vibrant feeling throughout the entire community about UNLV athletics across the board in those days.

“That can happen again, and I want to do our part in bringing soccer back to a national level. I think with support from the administration and local club teams and leagues, it can be done. I think we have a real chance.”

Rich is 45 and 11 months younger than the brother he will oppose Friday, having played against him and at one time for him professionally. Rob has been a Division I head coach for 11 years; Rich is working on his sixth month.

But what UNLV has is a coach closely linked to the area’s vastly improving club system, in which prospects emerge each year. Next season, Ryerson could offer a roster in which close to half the players are local.

The Rebels are 2-4 under him, having known the high of beating Stanford two weeks ago and the low of losing three in a row since. It’s a process. UNLV last year posted its first winning record since 2002.

The wheelbarrow races seem like forever ago.

“You know, that first season on our own field, you could see the sod lines in the grass no matter how we cut it,” Ryerson said. “There have been some improvements over time, but I still call it our field.

“I’d love to put us back on the national map. We have great kids aspiring to do some of the things we did back then. If I can help them achieve it at a place that means so much to me, there wouldn’t be a better feeling.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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