Walker Brittain CFNN Reporter
The 1979-80 school year saw the end of the Disco decade with Superman and Rocky battling it out at the box office and Donna Summer singing about Hot Stuff on the dance floor, but at Cape Fear High School, interest in “the beautiful game” was heating up with the birth of Colts soccer.
“Entering my Junior year at Cape Fear, word got out that the school was starting soccer team,” said Dr. Joseph Catlett, a 1981 graduate and member of the inaugural Colts soccer team. “I had never played, like most of the guys who tried out.”
Dr. Catlett, a Fayetteville dentist, also played basketball and golf at Cape Fear, but was attracted by the prospect of playing a new sport.
“I decided to give it a shot to stay in shape and keep myself busy during the fall sports season,” said Catlett, who graduated college from BYU and earned his dental degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. “I vividly remember a group of us trying to make that decision, and on the last day for sign ups, we said, ‘What the heck?! let’s go for it!’”
In the 70s and early 80s, the game of soccer was relatively new to the United States as international sensation Pele from Brazil and movies like Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone, alongside the Brazilian superstar, created and fed a budding interest in the game. However, this interest and the level of ability of US players was nowhere near today’s environment of professional soccer leagues, rec soccer and travel soccer.
“We showed up at the first practice having no clue what to do or how to play,” said Catlett. “We had one player, Dennis Krings, who had played overseas and just dominated everyone. We were amazed with his footwork and how he could control the ball.”
The job of guiding Catlett and the rest of these fledgling Colt soccer players fell on the shoulders of Spanish teacher, Rueben Rinaldi.
“Mr. Rinaldi, the school Spanish teacher from Argentina, was given the task of teaching us the game,” said Catlett. “Word was that he officiated World Cup games in Argentina back in the day, but I don’t know if that was true or not. I do know that despite his age, he could still play. He would go out there with his long pants and shirt with what seemed like 50 keys dangling from a keychain hooked to his belt loop and would run circles around us.”
It fell on Mr. Rinaldi to teach the fundamentals of the most popular sport in the world to a bunch of country boys who were more familiar with football, basketball, baseball and golf than soccer.
“He taught us postioning and basic fundamentals of the sport,” said Catlett. “I can remember him telling us that the center midfielder was the most important postion on the field and that person should be the captain. He taught us how to do corner kicks and proper ways to do throw-ins. We even learned how to properly go out on the field as a team and salute the crowd, making 90 degree turns and raising our arms.
“We thought it was pretty funny, but he said it was the way international teams did it. We actually started to look like a team and then we headed to Western Harnett for our first game against the defending state champions. That’s when we realized we had a long, long way to go.”
Catlett remembers that first match against Western Harnett was an eye-opening experience for the soccer newbies.
“Let’s just put it this way, it wasn’t a match,” he said. “ We were dominated from the start. Never had we seen ball movement like that. (Western Harnett) toyed with us and laughed their way to a 10-0 win.”
However, Coach Rinaldi wouldn’t let the Colts give up.
“We were so dejected, but Mr. Rinaldi told us that we would improve and to not get discouraged,” Catlett remembers. “We worked harder and pushed ourselves, and the results started to become evident.”
Teaching his players a new sport, Coach Rinaldi incorporated some unorthodox techniques to get the Colts in a soccer state of mind.
“Mr. Rinaldi also started having us prepare mentally before we played,” Catlett recalls. “We would go in a dark room and lay down, and he basically start some breathing and meditation exercises to get us to relax.
“We thought it was hilarious at first and had to do all we could not laugh out loud. However, it worked. We didn’t win, but we at least we’re competitive in our next game against Westover.”
While wins were elusive, the Colts remained competitive. However, a rematch against Western Harnett loomed on the schedule with Cape Fear hosting the soccer powerhouse.
“We took the fight to them and were aggressive from the start,” Catlett said. “Dennis Krings scored a goal, and we scored another in a corner kick to go up 2-1. They could not believe it. The game ended in a 3-3 tie, and I got a yellow card for almost coming to blows with one of their defenders, but we felt like winners that day!”
There was no better example of a moral victory than forty years ago on that Cape Fear soccer field, coming back from a humiliating 10-0 defeat to tie the defending state champs only a few weeks later.
“It was extremely satisfying to tie them,” Catlett said. “Mr. Rinaldi was so proud of us.”
The Cape Fear High School soccer team of the 1979-80 school year did not return for a second season the following year, and the sport would not be revived until 1986.
“Most of the rising seniors for some reason decided not to play the next year,” Catlett recalls. “I know for me, I didn’t play because I decided to give 100% focus on golf to try to earn a college scholarship.”
While that first Cape Fear soccer team may not have measured success in wins versus losses, the lessons learned on the field and from Mr. Rinaldi have remained with those initial players, like Catlett.
“I can’t remember if we ever won a game that season, but we learned a lot about the sport and grew to love and respect it,” he said. “I will be forever grateful for that year and for the bond that we had as the first Cape Fear High School soccer team.”