By Stan Veitch/Sports Correspondent
In 1991, the Alabama High School Athletic Association recognized soccer as a championship sport, for the first time.
At first, the AHSAA should have dubbed it the “Gadsden High Invitational,” as the Tigers won the first three state championships, finished second in ‘94, and won the title again in ‘95.
As for the runner-up team, many think it might’ve been the strongest team.
“It (the ‘94 team) might’ve been our strongest,” said former GHS soccer player Jake Carlisle. “Both teams played extremely hard and both had chances to score, but the defenses and goalkeepers were on their game.
“Our shots were hitting the posts or just missing the goal.”
John Carroll Catholic eventually won the game, 2-1, on penalty kicks late in the game.
“If not for that penalty, they might’ve played all night,” said former GHS soccer coach Danny Carlisle.
The penalty gave each team five shots and the Tigers hit only one while John Carroll connected on two.
“We were robbed,” former player Bill Martin said with a laugh. “It was a phantom call. Maybe the refs were getting tired?”
John Carroll was a perennial favorite and went on a championship streak of its own after Gadsden slowed down.
Until they won the first title, the Tigers weren’t considered championship material by other schools.
“We weren’t seriously thought of,” Danny Carlisle said. “Most people thought a team from Birmingham or Mobile would win. They had a lot of club teams, but we had the athletes and enthusiasm.”
The most notable of the athletes was Andy Swafford, who went on to play football at Auburn University. Several Tigers played college soccer.
“We caught the community’s eye,” Swafford said. “Some rowdy crowds showed up and gave us a true home field advantage.”
That was in 1992 and ‘93 when the state title games were played in Gadsden. The first year saw the championships played at Murphree Stadium, with the second played at Weeks Field.
“Some of my European friends went to Murphree Stadium and told me that the atmosphere was very reminiscent of European games,” Danny Carlisle said.
Danny Carlisle’s employer – Northeast Orthopedic – was also a big part, with donations and allowing Danny time off whenever he needed it to work with the team.
The 1991 championships were played in Mobile, and after Gadsden, they went to John Carroll in Birmingham.
Back then, there were only two boys titles and two girls titles. Since most schools didn’t have a soccer team yet, the championships were set up as 1A-5A and 6A.
Now that enough schools have teams to support all classes, the championships are held in Huntsville at the John Hunt soccer complex.
The core group of players on the Gadsden teams grew up together playing youth soccer.
“That group hated to lose,” Jake Carlisle said. “We had a great chemistry and camaraderie. I haven’t been a part of anything like it before or since.”
The coaches – Danny Carlisle, Billy Martin and Johnny Parker – were a huge part of the success, of course.
“They (the coaches) helped raise about five generations of players,” Bill Martin said.