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"He taught me there is so much life has to offer and you have to believe in yourself to take out of it whatever you can. To this day, I consider him part of my family. I can't tell you how much he has influenced my life."
 
The man behind the
women's soccer team


By Anthony Violanti Photos by Frank Miller

Editor's note: Our reporter filed this story in mid-summer, as the women's soccer team was preparing for the 2001 season. To see how the team has fared, consult the Division of Athletics website at www.buffalobulls.com.


  Tassy
 
Jean-A. Tassy has turned the University at Buffalo's women's soccer team into a perennial powerhouse with players who reflect his values, both on and off the field. "I have a passion for the sport and I share that quality with the players, who love the game as much as I do," says Tassy, a native of Haiti and a former All-American soccer player at Buffalo State College in the early 1970s. Tassy shares his passion and commitment with his players not only about soccer, but also about the game of life. That's one reason last season's team earned the first Mid-American Conference (MAC) regular season championship for any sport in the school's history. UB finished with a 14-6-1 overall record, but ended its season with a loss to Miami of Ohio in a MAC semifinal tournament play-off game. The MAC regular-season title was nice, but not enough to satisfy Tassy, who was named the conference's coach of the year-nor did it satisfy his team.

"Winning the MAC was not the focus for the team," he says. "My focal point is for the team to make it to the NCAA Final Four. That's our ultimate goal."

Elizabeth Pfeffer, a midfielder and one of this year's tri-captains, shared that viewpoint. "Winning the MAC was great, but it's not enough. We want more."

The bittersweet finish to last year's triumphant season does not detract from the remarkable success story Tassy has written during his six years at UB. During this time his teams have won 59 games, lost 40 and tied 11.

On the field, the Tassy style might be described as possession soccer. It stresses teamwork, putting passing and unity above solo performance and individual scoring. "I try to promote the beauty of the game," Tassy says.

Whether they're on the field or off, he promotes the development of their emotional maturity. "These young women are still growing, and as coaches we are still molding individuals," he adds. "Our job is not only to teach them the game, but also to give them an atmosphere in which to grow as a person.

"I think soccer is like a laboratory for life," he continues. "It's a place where kids can learn about winning and losing and testing themselves. That's why we stress that they have to play their best and push themselves to get better."

Goalkeeper Emily Cox, another of this year's tri-captains, takes Tassy's lessons to heart. "He's the kind of coach who's very motivational and inspirational," she says. "He pushes you beyond where you think you can go. He makes you accomplish things you didn't think you could do."

Tassy can be a stern taskmaster. "Last year was the hardest season I've ever had," Cox says. "We put in so much work, the most I've ever done. But it paid off because the team was totally dedicated."

Motivating players can be a complicated matter, especially with a male coach leading a female team. Tassy, who played professional soccer and was a college teammate of former National Basketball Association star Randy Smith, has coached both men's and women's teams. Tassy says women have a better innate team concept of the game than men, but, as in dealing with male athletes, a coach must strike an emotional balance. "You just can't get in their faces if they do something wrong," he says, adding there is a time to yell and a time to give a pat on the back.

"I'm not good at being yelled at," says Megan Hosey, a midfielder and tri-captain of this year's team. "Coach has a way of pushing you and giving you confidence, but doing it in a way that you don't feel bad about it. He really creates chemistry so that everybody works together. We call it team building," she adds.

For some, Tassy's influence lasts after graduation. Lori Perillo, Ed.M. '99 & B.A. '97, played two seasons for him in 1995 and 1996. She is now director of basketball operations for Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

"If you're serious about soccer, he will take you to the highest level possible," Perillo says. "He gave me a lot of confidence, and not just about soccer. He taught me there is so much life has to offer and you have to believe in yourself to take out of it whatever you can. To this day, I consider him part of my family. I can't tell you how much he has influenced my life."

Such accolades mean more than a won-lost record at UB.

"I think Jean is one of the finest teachers of young people in women's soccer today,'' says Bob Arkeilpane, athletic director for UB. "He's a tremendous teacher, motivator and role model. He's the type of coach I'd want my kids to play for."

Soccer, like many women's sports, is growing in popularity. Arkeilpane says all the schools in the MAC conference have women's soccer teams, and UB's soccer success displays its commitment to women's athletics. UB received an $800,000 grant from the 2000-01 New York State budget to help keep pace with other Division I schools' women's sports programs. It was the only State University of New York (SUNY) school to receive such support from the state legislature. Monies from this grant have been deployed throughout the athletic program, including an improved varsity training room for all women's sports and, for the women's soccer team in particular, a brand new locker room.




  Captains
  From left: Tri-captains Megan Hosey, Elizabeth Pfeffer and Emily Cox.
 
Women's soccer is not considered a "revenue producing" sport such as football or basketball, but it has made an impact at UB. This summer, about 270 young women showed up for the school's annual soccer camp. Also, attendance was up at last year's games and Tassy notes that there was strong support and encouragement for the team during its play-off drive.

The MAC title also provided a boost for both men and women competitors at the university. "It sets an example for the other coaches and teams, of how much can be accomplished," Arkeilpane says. "We fell short of winning in the MAC play-offs and going on to the NCAAs. These are goals we want to accomplish. At the same time, we're not going to get carried away."

This season the pressure is on the team to defend its title. With last year's 14 victories tying a season record for UB, expectations are high, but it won't be easy. While the team lost six starters to graduation, Tassy is optimistic that new recruits and returning players will meet the challenge.

"It's going to be tougher," Tassy says. "This year will show the character of our team-can we maintain the status quo?"

The returnees will carry the burden of leading the team. "These players have to step up," Tassy says. Among those expected to play prominent roles are Nicole Olszewski, who scored six goals and seven assists last year, Emily Russell, who had five goals and two assists, and Pfeffer, who scored four times with three assists. Others to watch include Lauren West, Devon Russell and Erin McGarry. Emily Cox is back to play in goal.

"If we get leadership from these players, I think we're going to surprise some people," Tassy says. "We lost some quality players and people are expecting us to rebuild. I think, barring injury, we will be competitive."

One newcomer is Anna-Lesa Calvert, a goalkeeper from Dallas, Texas. She suffered a leg injury this past summer, but Tassy likes her potential. Other freshmen who could play key roles include Jenny Dannecker, Erin Tambs and Vanessa Walsh.

The 18-game regular season schedule includes such opponents as Syracuse, Boston University and Miami of Ohio.

"It's going to be tough, especially since we won the title last year," Cox says. "We're expected to win and teams are kind of looking for us [to do so] now. The MAC is a tough conference, but we can hold our own."

Hosey agrees. "We lost some good people from last year but we have a good work ethic," she says. "It was an awesome feeling winning the title last year, and if we can do it again, we will show we really belong."

Tassy manages to keep last year's success and this season's potential in perspective. Throughout his life, soccer has always been a means, not an end. He grew up in the political turmoil of Haiti and was forced to flee that country at age 14 with his family.

In a way, soccer became a refuge for him. However, in 1974, when he was invited to play in the World Cup for Haiti, he declined the honor as a matter of conscience. "I had to support what my family believed in," he says, referring to the political climate of his country at that time.

Tassy is a devout Christian and dedicated family man. His wife, Kathleen, teaches at Tonawanda High School and his two sons, Jean-Rene and Christopher, both played college and professional soccer.

Regardless of what he does, Tassy adheres to a moral philosophy. "He's very spiritual," Pfeffer says. "He's always telling us to respect everybody we meet."

For Tassy, such lessons involve more than coaching. "I try to handle things as a spiritual person," he says. "If you approach athletics from a spiritual perspective, it's for a higher purpose. I think the same thing applies to life."

Anthony Violanti is a writer for the Buffalo News.

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