LINAO Invitational honors legendary coach Werner

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BENNINGTON — 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 after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2015.

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Werner grew up on Long Island before heading to SUNY Oneonta to get his Bachelor's Degree 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 in 1972, Werner became the head coach of the Arlington Memorial High School boys' varsity soccer team.

"I had always wanted to teach and coach, but student teaching got in the way of playing soccer in the fall," Werner said. "I was set, the summer after graduating from Oneonta, to do a full fellowship at the University of Florida to get my [doctorate] in chemistry, but I was there for two weeks and it wasn't what I wanted to do.

Soon after, Werner, who wasn't certified to teach in New York was writing letters to principals in Vermont, sending his resume and trying to catch on.

"I had never been to Vermont," Werner said. "Bud Towne, the principal at the time, wrote back and wanted me to come up. We met, I told him I can teach chemistry, math, physics and coach, and he said, I want you here."

But Werner wasn't certified to teach in Vermont either. One phone call from Towne changed that.

"He called a number from memory and told the lady on the other end, I have this young man, here's all his credentials, I need him in my little school," the 68-year-old Werner remembered. "They went back and forth and by the end, I was certified. He had called the certification person and took care of it."

In his first year at Arlington, he coached the middle school soccer team and assisted Herb Eddy on the varsity. The next summer, Towne appointed Werner to coach the varsity after Eddy left.

He went 0-4 in his first four games.

"If it was today, I don't think I would have coached a fifth game," Werner said. "It was a good lesson and the rest is history."

He stayed in that role for 31 years while teaching and being the athletic director for the High School — amassing a then state-high record of 346-108-31; that win total included his seven Vermont state championships.

In between, he met his wife, Judy, who was also a teacher at Arlington, got married in 1974 and had two children, both of whom graduated from Arlington.

On the field, 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.

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After leaving Arlington, he tried to step away, but couldn't do it.

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 in that time and led the Spartans into seven North Atlantic Conference (NAC) postseason tournaments. Castleton won three NAC titles with Werner at the helm of the Spartans while making three NCAA tournaments and receiving three Eastern Athletic Collegiate Conference bids.

He finally stopped coaching in 2012.

But in August 2015, life changed forever after his cancer diagnosis.

He was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer in 2015, and LINAO was born shortly after.

"I had to get my game face on, bring it on, I can beat this," Werner said.

It wasn't the first time Werner had dealt with cancer. His wife was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2005 and went through a stem-cell transplant at Dartmouth. It worked and her cancer went into remission. However, it returned last fall, and she was at Dartmouth again, for 17 days, going through treatments to slow the cancer. Right now, she's back in remission.

During this time, Werner said he wasn't feeling right, but didn't think a lot of it.

"I was taking care of Judy, and my mother was living with it and we had our dog that was sick as well," Werner said. "I never thought it could happen. We didn't smoke, we're not big drinkers, very healthy. But cancer doesn't discriminate."

Werner went to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center for treatment.

"They sent me to the urologist, who said I have to do a biopsy," Werner remembered. "A couple of days later, I went in for the follow up and he told me that I had cancer. It's the hardest punch in the stomach you've ever got."

Things started to move quickly after that. He had a bone scan and CAT scan the next day to see how far the cancer had spread.

He met with Dr. Orion Howard, an oncologist at SVMC, to come up with a plan to battle the disease.

"It's just a blessing to have this here in Bennington," Werner said. "Dr. Howard gives me nothing but hope every time I see him."

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, who was battling testicular cancer, 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."

"That was Stage 1, that's all it was," Werner said. "Something to say when you're by yourself and need to stay strong."

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 the Center 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 the Center and wanted to have the LINAO donations be made in honor of their doctors and staff — of whom he cannot speak more highly of.

"They truly are very special people," Werner said.. "Not just in their professional knowledge — but in their caring manner. They give us hope!"

Werner is still battling the cancer and people around the world are supporting him in that battle, with donations to the Center and lots of awareness with the stickers.

The bumper stickers have been brandished on automobiles throughout 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.

In fact, recently on Facebook, Dylan Williams, a former All-American soccer player at Oneonta who is playing professional soccer in Tasmania, stuck the sticker to a 'kangaroo crossing' sign.

Over the past few months, he's raised more than $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 SVC assistant men's soccer coach Patrick Zilkha, 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."

SVC head coach Greg Gilmore 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. 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," Gilmore said. "Ultimately, our goal is to graduate athletes who are ready to be professionals in society. 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 Center 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, Werner and 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 visit. "It doesn't matter if we raise $20 or $2,000; it's just the idea of it."

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 Jared [Lacoste], and discovering their home field was called `Werner Field,'" Gilmore said. "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."

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.

"It's like we always taught to the kids, the more you give the more you get back," Werner said.

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

Mike Nosek is the Sports Information Director at Southern Vermont College.


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