The legend of Werner: Soccer buoys Arlington

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ARLINGTON — As the Arlington boys and girls soccer teams captured Division 4 state titles last Saturday, one name kept popping up all over town — John Werner, and all that he had done to build soccer and community in this Vermont town with a population of just more than 2,200 residents.

Arlington's legendary soccer coach and community supporter died in March, but his legacy was in full force and on the minds of many residents as the Arlington team buses headed out of town on their way to the game with cheering supporters lining the route.

And his name was being spoken all over town and social media as those same buses toured Arlington later that same day filled with the boys' and girls' state champions, followed by a caravan of honking and waving fans ecstatic over the small town's dual championships.

Among those lining the streets to cheer on their returning champions were Tom Ryan, his wife Kylee, and their children, JT, 5, and Anna, 7.

Tom Ryan grew up in Arlington before moving away only to return to raise his family in Arlington.

Ryan was a young boy when Werner started the first Arlington soccer program in the 1970s. He said Werner not only taught soccer and created a love of the game in his players, he built community around soccer.

"It was much more than soccer," Ryan said. "He was a strong part of the community."

And that lasted long after their playing days.

"He'd see me and say, 'hey, there's No. 12,'" Ryan said.

The fact he might have had a dozen No. 12s since Ryan played didn't matter.

"That's why we chose to live here," Kylee Ryan said. "Soccer is a big deal here."

Tom and Kylee agreed that their children might be riding a bus in a victory parade themselves one day.

That opportunity, because of the school's small numbers, is part of Arlington's attraction, said Sarah Merrill, principal at Arlington Memorial High School.

"Every one of our high school girls who wanted to play soccer this year is a state champion today," Merrill said following the parade. "Not many other schools can say that."

Merrill said the success on the soccer pitch translates into well-rounded students in the classroom.

"It's amazing to watch our student-athletes developing into leaders on and off the field," Merrill said. "Their leadership makes a big difference in the classrooms and community."

Merrill said she watched that in action as the boys team won in overtime.

As the West Rutland boys fell to the turf dejected in defeat, Merrill watched as the Arlington boys went to them, helped them up and consoled them.

"Both soccer matches were high-intensity due to the long-standing rivalries we have with West Rutland and Proctor," Merrill said. "I'm proud of how our athletes handled themselves on the pitch today. I'm grateful for our families, coaches and teachers who instill a sense of pride and community in all of our students."

For the small-town community, winning a championship is meaningful throughout the town.

Arlington School Board chairwoman Nicol Whalen said the pride the town has been feeling has been deep.

"There's been a real renewed sense of pride," Whalen said.

She said the win was meaningful for the Arlington students who never knew soccer without Werner.

"For these kids, who grew up with him, it's pretty special," Whalen said.

Arlington's principal said the community's support of the students is one of the positive aspects of living in Arlington.

"Our community has an understanding of the impact of sports on developing our children into respectable, responsible young men and women," Merrill said. "There has been a steadily growing vibe in town over the past few years. We have so many opportunities for our children, in our town and in our schools, it's incredibly exciting. We are truly proud of Arlington."

And Arlington is proud right back.

One group of Eagle supporters, decked out in the maroon and white Eagles jackets, sweatshirts and baseball caps, were standing in the blowing rain that was trying to turn to snow waiting for the parade to roll by.

Kevin and Sara Smith and Roger and Peggy Hanson are neighbors and big supporters of the Eagles. They said they wanted to make the trip to watch the games but attending the victory parade was the next best thing.

Their connection to the school runs deep. Both couples had kids who played soccer for the Eagles and the Smiths said they moved to Arlington because of the school. Roger Hanson's parents taught at the school and said Saturday's wins were huge for the small town.

"This town supports the kids," Roger Hanson said.

At that point, the sounds of fire engines could be heard and the celebration began.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.

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