BENNINGTON, Vt. – The Southern Vermont College men’s soccer program is hosting an early-season tournament for the first time since 2009 this weekend, but this year’s event will add a new meaning as the College introduces the 2017 LINAO Mountaineer Invitational.
LINAO, a term standing for “Losing Is Not An Option,” is a grassroots movement started by legendary Vermont soccer coach John Werner as a way to stay mentally strong and raise money to support the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center (SWVRCC) after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2015.
The Mountaineers will take on SUNY Canton in the opening match of the Invitational at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday with SUNY Oswego and UMaine Farmington meeting at 4 p.m. The two losing teams from Saturday will square off on Sunday during a 12 p.m. consolation game, and the LINAO championship will ensue around 2:30 p.m. at Everett Field. There is no cost for admission to any of the games.
Werner’s impact on soccer throughout the Green Mountain State is nothing short of extraordinary—including a resume that has seen him win seven high school state titles and make three NCAA Division III tournament appearances during a nine-year stint at Castleton State College.
SVC head coach Greg Gilmore ‘12 wanted to brand this year’s tournament with the abbreviation to help bring awareness and support to the cause.
“One of the things we try to stress is that our program is about more than just wins and losses,” Gilmore said. “As a player, and even as a coach, it's very easy to get wrapped up in score lines; when you listen to some of Coach Werner's former players talk about their experience, and you see him traveling the country and getting invited to former players’ weddings, you can tell he was giving student-athletes an experience that was greater than the results on the field.
“Ultimately, our goal is to graduate athletes who are ready to be professionals in society,” Gilmore continued. “Obviously, with LINAO, there is an awareness factor, but I thought this was a great opportunity to recognize an individual who has had a tremendous impact on the soccer community locally—as well as the entire Northeast. I think his programs embody what we are trying to build, and it's great to have a tournament that can hopefully raise some awareness and support the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center.”
Donations will be collected during the weekend at Everett Field to aid Werner’s idea: supporting the SWVRCC and honoring the doctors and nurses who work there. A limited number of bumper stickers with the LINAO graphic, which includes a soccer ball within the ‘O,’ will be available free of charge; Coach Werner and Coach Gilmore just ask that a donation of any amount be made to the SWVRCC in Bennington in return.
“I’m thrilled that Greg wants to do this with his tournament,” Werner said while sitting in Gilmore’s office during a recent afternoon visit. “It doesn’t matter if we raise $20 or $2,000; it’s just the idea of it.”
The bumper stickers have been brandished on automobiles across the Vermont—along with another 32 states in the U.S. and three foreign countries. They have been distributed over the past two years by Werner—mostly to former players of his and with the help of Facebook communication.
His cause recently surpassed $5,000 in donations from those who wanted to help out rather than just receive a sticker. The gift that pushed the total over that threshold came from Patrick Zilkha—SVC’s assistant men’s soccer coach who donated the money he earned for stepping in to lead an introductory coaching course when Werner didn’t think he had the energy to run it.
“John has been an inspiration,” Zilkha said of his mentor. “He's thoughtful, intelligent, and generous with his time. He's given me the tools and knowledge to approach each and every one of my practices—from youth up to the collegiate level—with the power to develop and invigorate my own players. And I'm just one of thousands of coaches John has inspired and affected. Simply put: John Werner has revolutionized soccer in Vermont over the last 40 years.”
Werner and the LINAO Movement
Werner grew up on Long Island before heading to SUNY Oneonta to get his Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry. While there for his undergraduate degree, Werner was a three-year member of the Red Dragons’ men’s soccer team (1968-70). He was a co-captain for the 1970 season—one during which he made his way to the All-State University of New York Athletic Conference Team. Werner was then tabbed the 1970-71 SUNY Chancellor’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year before graduating that spring. He went back to receive his master’s in Education from Oneonta in 1975.
Shortly after finishing his undergrad degree, Werner became the head coach of the Arlington Memorial High School boys’ varsity soccer team. He stayed in that role for 31 years while teaching and being the athletic director for the High School—amassing a state-high record of 346-108-31; that win total included his seven Vermont state championships.
Werner was tabbed the 1995 National Federation of Interscholastic Coaches Association Coach of the Year, and he also picked up four NSCAA New England High School Coach of the Year awards and six Vermont Soccer Coaches Association Vermont High School Coach of the Year honors.
While leading the Eagles, Werner established and ran the Arlington Youth Soccer League from 1975-2004. He also founded the Southwest Vermont Youth Soccer League in 1980 and directed that organization until 2004; the name of the league was later changed to the John Werner Youth Soccer League after Werner moved on to the collegiate game. In 2004, he was inducted to the Vermont Principal's Association Hall of Fame, and Arlington High named its varsity pitch “Werner Field” in 2016 to honor the coach.
Stories are told of how envelopes used to be addressed simply with the picture of a soccer ball and ‘05250’—the zip code for Arlington—and it would find its way to Werner’s mailbox.
In the fall of 2004, Werner started a nine-year tenure as the head coach of the Castleton State College men’s soccer program. He posted a 105-69-12 record (.597) in that time and led the Spartans into seven North Atlantic Conference (NAC) postseason tournaments. Castleton won three NAC titles (2004, ‘07, & ‘08) with Werner at the helm of the Spartans while making three NCAA tournaments and receiving three Eastern Athletic Collegiate Conference bids (2005, ’09, & ‘11).
In his time at Castleton, Werner was 6-1 against Southern Vermont. His one loss came in 2010 when Gilmore and the Mountaineers were able to shut down their opponents on Everett Field for a 1-0 victory; Castleton took a 10-2 advantage in shots on goal during the upset. That win still stands as the only for SVC in 20 all-time meetings with the Spartans.
Werner was inducted as an Honorary Member of SUNY Oneonta’s Hall of Fame in 2014, and he will soon receive his third hall induction when Castleton welcomes him as a member next week.
After Castleton, Werner’s life took a change. He was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2015, and LINAO would be born shortly after.
Werner took to the care of SWVRCC for treatment. After starting to receive help from the Center, he learned of another patient there who he was quite familiar with: Brandon Smith. Smith was one of Werner’s former Arlington players and a later opponent as he went on to play at Johnson State College from 2002-05 (Smith still sits at third on JSC’s all-time record list of most games played since 2002).
Werner offered to help drive Smith to the Center for treatment sessions—giving the two time in the car and a chance to chat. The pair began talking about how they were going to battle their respective diseases; they told each other: “Losing is not an option.”
“Like playing Middlebury [College],” Werner recalled about what he and Smith were about to face. “Bring it on.”
Facing Middlebury was no easy task for Werner and his collegiate squad; they went 0-9 against MC in his time at Castleton—being outscored by 24-1 by a Panthers team that made four NCAA tournaments and won the 2007 National Championship while he was with the Spartans.
The pair of former Arlington Eagles discussed it more, and Smith came up with the design for the LINAO sticker. Werner posted the image on his Facebook page, and the requests came pouring in. Once the initial batch was distributed, Smith ordered another 250. Werner was sent handfuls of donation checks made out to SWVRCC ranging from single to triple digits as the idea picked up steam.
“I wasn’t smart enough to plan it,” Werner quipped. “It just took on a life of its own. Now that I’m retired, I’m trying to keep doing what I always did, and that’s to try and inspire the guys who play for me.”
Werner continued to receive care from SWVRCC and wanted to have the LINAO donations be made in honor of the Center’s staff—of whom he cannot speak more highly of.
“They truly are very special people,” Werner said of the Center’s nurses and doctors. “Not just in their professional knowledge—but in their caring manner. They give us hope!"
This weekend’s tournament will not only try to support Werner’s cause—but will also feature a pair of Arlington natives who grew up knowing and learning from the coach.
“I remember recruiting Alex [Paustian] and Jarred [Lacoste], and discovering their home field was called ‘Werner Field,’” Gilmore noted. “Then I read about the local youth league, and over the last year I've been able to speak with John more-and-more. I think a lot of people in the area know about the success he has had for more than 40 years at Arlington and Castleton. Anytime you get to be involved with someone of John's caliber as a person and a coach—it's a pretty special feeling. I'd like to continue this tournament and improve on it to try and have whatever positive impact we can here at SVC.”
Donation checks made out to ‘SWVRCC’ can be brought to Everett Field this weekend; they can also be sent to Coach Werner at:
276 Pickering Road
Arlington, VT 05250
or to Coach Gilmore at:
982 Mansion Drive
Bennington, VT 05201
– #LetsGoSVC –