The 24th annual Josh Cole Soccer Tournament was held at Dorsey Park in Ludlow over the weekend. The crowds were big, and the competition was intense as it almost always is. Black River advanced to the final for the first time since 2009. They led deep into the second half 2-1. Two late Leland & Gray goals spoiled the fairy tale effect of the tourney. However, the event was successful, as it is, year after year.
Josh Cole is bigger than life. The importance of his name will long outlive Black River High School, whenever its doors are shut for the final time. His spirit shows up every year at this time, and it is incredible how many people his legacy touches and how far it reaches.
Before he received a communication from me yesterday, Brad Pearson, Black River graduate, classmate and friend of Josh Cole, and current Red Sox head trainer, was taking an Uber ride to Yankee Stadium with none other than Chris Sale, and the subject of Cole came up.
The subject of dirt bikes and ATVs was the discussion. Pearson told me, “Chris was lamenting about having to give up riding those types of vehicles, given his line of work. I couldn’t help but agree. I thought of Josh and shared his story.”
For those who don’t know, Josh unfortunately died after an accident in April 1994, when he went out on his four-wheeler one afternoon and never returned.
Josh’s mom, Teri, who gives out the championship trophy every year, told me she was approached three or four years ago at the tournament by a woman she didn’t know. The lady told her she “was there when Josh was brought in to Rutland Hospital. She said she was so moved by Josh’s story and what he stood for that she had heard from everybody who told her about Josh, she has brought her son to the tournament ever since.” The woman also told Teri, “This is the first time I have had enough nerve to come and tell you, that I was the nurse that treated him.”
Josh’s sister, Jamie Sanderson, has started a tradition of hosting the Black River team at her home the night before the tournament begins. Jamie said, “We cook a pasta dinner, and they hang out as a team. After they eat, they watch a Josh Cole video they made at school a few years back. My son [Alex Kirdzik] has played in the last three tournaments.”
Unfortunately, Kirdzik was injured during the second half in this one. His ankle injury came with the Presidents leading 2-1 well into the second half, and the momentum switched as he was traveling to the hospital for emergency care.
Veteran Leland & Gray coach Chris Barton realized the injury might make a difference. He said after the game, “We were very fortunate to have come away with the win. I think they wanted it more than we did. I felt bad. Black River has a nice program, but when one of their better players goes down, they don’t have the kind of depth to help.”
Josh’s high school soccer coach, Tony Valente, said he actually knew Josh since he was born. He said, “I was at Rodney and Teri’s wedding. I have known the family all the way through.”
Valente’s first up-close soccer look at Josh was when “I brought my varsity soccer team up to Mount Holly and did a clinic. When we saw Josh, we knew there was something special going on even though he was only in fifth grade. It was a matter of time until he got to me, and I couldn’t wait.”
Athletic Director Joe Gurdak told me, “Josh was a very talented athlete. He was a starter as a freshman in all three sports. He was the starting catcher, a guard on the basketball team, and our soccer goalie. He was a pleasant boy, and despite his talents, he wasn’t at all cocky. He respected everybody, and everybody just loved him.”
The matter of Valente’s time was now up and Cole was a varsity soccer candidate. The coach remembers, “There was never any doubt he would play as a freshman, but I never thought he would be a goal keeper. He wasn’t exactly the tallest guy out there, but he was the most fierce competitor.”
The family clearly told me they saw a leader, and Valente unquestionably echoes such a thought. Tony said, “He was certainly a leader by the time he was a sophomore. Some sit back and wait to see who you really are at first, but the second year everyone had had a full year of seeing he was the real deal and that he really cares. I don’t think he had any enemies, and he was hard on kids in terms of practicing because he would practice as if it was a game. He would get in their faces if they didn’t do that.”
Pearson met Cole when the students from Mount Holly joined the Ludlow kids in Black River Middle/High School in seventh grade. Pearson said, “Josh easily stood out. He had a big personality, very charismatic. He was like a character you’d see in the MTV movie production ‘Varsity Blues’ only from Vermont, not Texas, of course.”
The Sox trainer went on to say, “Josh and I became friends and bonded over our love of sports. We were both very competitive to say the least. Josh was an incredibly gifted athlete. Whether it was playing soccer as our goalkeeper or guard on the basketball team, he was an impact player. He set the standard and pushed me to raise mine.”
Wow! It’s one thing when a family member or a coach notices these things. But, as Valente said, his fellow players were sold too.
There is a special feeling at the Josh Cole Tournament. It is truly a big time event. Big crowds, competitive games, and, most importantly, atmosphere. Former Bellows Falls soccer coach Larry Slason reflected, “Without a doubt, the tournament was always the highlight of our season. Great crowds, rare moments, a real play-off feel. Guys play soccer at a consistently high level before a energetic crowd under the lights at a wonderful place. It’s like a state championship atmosphere.”
Valente looked out at the play on the field and recalled also about the atmosphere. “It’s a little bowl like stadium atmosphere with everything enclosed in the spotlight, in a place where everyone walks out the same road. That’s special.”
Josh’s sister, Jamie, was shopping in the store this weekend to prepare for an overnight with the girls’ soccer team surrounding the tournament. A friendly shopper asked her what time’s dinner? This warmed Jamie’s heart. The fellow shopper was from out of town but visits this time each year and immediately realized it was Josh Cole Tournament weekend. Of her brother, Jamie says, “Josh never looked down on anyone. To him, it was all about being there and supporting one another.”
Sports have been good to me. I have seen many a game and met tons of athletes in my lifetime, but I feel something missing at the moment because I never met Josh Cole. Tony Valente put Cole in a special place when he told me exactly where he was when he found out about the accident.
“That’s etched in my mind forever. I was in room 21, Black River High School, second floor, and someone came in in the morning and said Josh was in an accident…” His voice then trailed off, and he couldn’t speak to me for a while.
Josh’s classmate Pearson said, “Josh’s death was the first real tragedy I remember experiencing. Before he died, I don’t think I realized life could be so harsh. When you’re a kid, you think you’re invincible. I grew up a lot that day. He surely had closer friends than me, but I do think we had a lot of fun together. Riding his four-wheeler, camping, and, most of all, being teammates.
“Josh had a chance to be one of the best athletes we ever had at BRHS. I would’ve liked to see where his talent would’ve taken him. I feel like we all got cheated instead.”
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