West Xtra: West Allegheny team grows with coach

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Losses of the heaviest and most spirit-shattering nature are not hard for West Allegheny boys soccer coach Kevin Amos to recall.

Partly because they occurred with regularity at the start of his tenure with the Indians' 10 years ago. Tight defeats, blowouts, long losing streaks -- they all happened, and they happened often.

"My first four years, we kind of call them the 'Dark Ages,'" he said of a period in which West Allegheny only managed to win 18 of 77 games over his first four years.

That's a far cry from the product West Allegheny puts on the pitch today, a team that, much like the school's well-established football team, finished the regular season with an undefeated record, the first time in the program's history, and captured the Section 5-AA title outright, the third time within the past three years they've won at least a share of their section title.

But West Allegheny's winning ways didn't happen overnight, and the start of Amos' role in the program's maturation came five years before he joined the varsity program.

After being turned down for the role of head coach 15 years ago, Amos, along with longtime collaborators Dave Tissue and Derek McCracken, took charge of West Allegheny's youth soccer program.

Seeing kids at the earliest stages of their development playing full-field, 11-a-side matches, they encouraged a radical redevelopment of the program. Matches were mostly eliminated, and it was encouraged that coaches no longer keep score. Winning and losing was no longer the focus.

In lieu of full-fledged competitions, small-sided, unconventional games were encouraged with only six-to-10 players participating at a time. The focus was shifted to developing skills and, more importantly, having fun.

"We looked at it and said, 'This is totally wrong,'" Amos said. "We started playing games like Cowboys and Indians, Sharks and Minnows and Pacman. ... We wanted them to build a love of the game at a young age."

West Allegheny junior forward Collin Wurst recalls, above all else, the fun he had going to practice in his childhood.

"There's no particular memories, but I'd always look forward to going and playing there," he said.

While kids as young as 5 years old enjoyed playing the games, they were also developing ball skills that would serve them further down the line.

The program empowered parents to be more involved in their kids' practices. Soon, youth soccer enrollment increased twofold.

"There was a real emphasis on having fun," senior center back Zach Graziani said. "What you didn't realize then, when you were little, the stuff we were doing, it prepared you to play in middle and high school. They'd start to focus on something one step at a time. Pass the right way, dribble the right way, all one step at a time."

Five years after taking over the youth program, Amos was named head coach of the still-struggling West Allegheny boys varsity team. Those were still the "Dark Ages," and it wasn't until his fifth season in charge that the Indians began to show real signs of life.

The first success was in 2008, when West Allegheny achieved its first winning record in his tenure. In 2009 they reached the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals.

"The coaches always mention that team and how great they were," Wurst said. "We sort of use that as motivation to try and be that next great team at West Allegheny."

Since the end of the "Dark Ages," Amos' record as head coach has improved from that early 18-56-3 mark to 85-17-10 over the past six years.

The success has come with a core of players he began working with at the youth level more than a decade ago.

For how far West Allegheny has come during his time with the program, Amos said remembering how long the road was for himself, his assistants and everyone involved with the program has made the Indians' success all the better.

"Watching them play after all of those earlier years -- reffing and coaching them -- it's served as an extra motivation," he said. "It gives you an extra appreciation of how far we've come.

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