In college athletics, bonds between teams are a given. NoÂ matter what sport student-athletes play, they all share a commonÂ thread of school pride and competitiveness. Those bondsÂ are even stronger when itâ€™s the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s programsÂ of the same sport. And for Colorado School of Mines soccer,Â the relationship between menâ€™s and womenâ€™s teams goes a stepÂ further.
On November 8, 2015, both teams celebrated together afterÂ winning Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) TournamentÂ championships. Although the two teams had won the tournamentÂ in the same year before, it was the first time they hadÂ done it together at home.
Leading the two programs are two men whose relationshipÂ goes back nearly 30 years. In the late 1980s, menâ€™s head coachÂ Frank Kohlenstein recruited womenâ€™s head coach Kevin FickesÂ to play at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. FickesÂ starred for his 49ers, and the two keptÂ in touch even after Kohlenstein came toÂ Mines in 1998.
â€œOne of the things he had said to usÂ at our first team meeting my freshmanÂ year was, â€˜If you play four years forÂ me, Iâ€™ll do anything I can for you theÂ rest of my life,â€™â€ recalled Fickes. â€œI wasÂ working at a hardwood flooring placeÂ part time, and I was miserable,â€ FickesÂ said of his post-graduate years in NorthÂ Carolina. â€œBut I remembered Frank hadÂ said that, so I called him and asked himÂ if there was any work to do out there.â€
The rest was history. Fickes joined Kohlenstein as his assistantÂ coach with the menâ€™s program in 1998. When the womenâ€™sÂ team was established in 2005, the pair coached both teamsÂ before Fickes eventually took over the head womenâ€™s job inÂ 2010. â€œ[Fickes] played for me as a college player, so heâ€™s likeÂ one of my kids,â€ Kohlenstein said. â€œI started the womenâ€™s program,Â so itâ€™s really special when they do well.â€
â€œSpecialâ€ might be an understatement. Since 2010, the twoÂ have arguably been the most dominant soccer programs inÂ their respective sides of the RMAC. The men have claimed twoÂ regular-season championships and four RMAC tournamentÂ titles in that span. And the women have a veritable dynastyÂ going, with five consecutive tournament cups since 2011 andÂ the last three regular-season crowns. The 2015 season was theÂ first undefeated campaign ever for the men, and the women areÂ coming off an appearance in the 2014 NCAA Final Four, the firstÂ by any team in Mines history.
The bonds are strong notÂ only between coaches, but alsoÂ among playersâ€”playing andÂ practicing the same sport in theÂ same stadium will do that. ButÂ for Joe Haines and Mel Westhoff,Â both senior captains of theirÂ respective teams, the ties runÂ even deeper.
The two met when they wereÂ freshmen at a pre-season gatheringÂ of the menâ€™s and womenâ€™sÂ teams. More than four yearsÂ later, after a home doubleheaderÂ at Stermole Stadium, Haines proposedÂ to his long-time girlfriend with someÂ help from his teammates. As the menâ€™sÂ team sang their traditional post-gameÂ fight song in front of the crowd, seniorÂ Jared Herselman plucked a surprisedÂ Westhoff out of the crowd. The menâ€™sÂ team lined up on either side of Haines,Â and he popped the question in front ofÂ both teams.
For the record, Westhoff said yes.Â â€œWeâ€™re able to go home and talk aboutÂ games, we have to schedule our dinnersÂ around practice, and we have hugeÂ support from our teammates,â€ WesthoffÂ said. â€œItâ€™s a huge part of our relationship.â€