By KATIE BROWN
The Daily Inter Lake
A smoky haze still hung over the Flathead Valley from Albertan wildfires earlier in the week, but players at the 26th annual Three Blind Refs soccer tournament appeared unaffected thus far on Saturday morning at Kidsports Complex.
“We’re still in the moderate for air quality and so unless it got to unhealthy or very unhealthy then we’re just gonna go as is,” tournament director Jill Marlow said. “They say it’s supposed to blow out, so hopefully it does.”
The tournament attracts teams and spectators from Washington, Idaho, Canada and Montana. On Saturday, there were 148 teams registered and matches were played at three different complexes. Besides Kidsports, Glacier High School and Kalispell Middle School are hosting games.
Some spectators become regulars, like Doug Mello, head coach of the Carroll College (Helena) men’s soccer team, who has attended all 26 years of the tournament. Each year, he comes back to check on the development of players, scout for potential recruits and spread the word about the Carroll College Soccer Academy.
“It’s always a good weekend. What a fantastic turnout they always have,” Mello said. “It’s a perennial, first-tier tournament for guys and gals. Soccer is growing by leaps and bounds in Montana, so that’s great.”
Mello was the youngest ever coach in the history of collegiate sports when he was hired at the age of 20 in 1978 by his alma mater Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and holds the record for most collegiate soccer matches coached (1,191). He’s won 754 games.
Mello also is the only college coach to have 250 women’s wins and 350 men’s wins during his 40-year career.
He founded the men’s and women’s soccer programs at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, in 1983 and 1985 and both soon became nationally ranked among NAIA schools.
It was while he was at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, that Mello and his wife, Gina, bought a house in Eureka. That was 10 years ago.
“I’d fly up, stay at my house and come to the tournament,” Mello said.
Though he’s primarily based in Helena these days, Mello still maintains his Eureka house as a second home.
In 2014, Carroll hired Mello to be the first-ever coach of its men’s soccer team. At the time, Carroll had a women’s soccer team and added softball and men’s soccer the same year.
The Saints were 6-11-1, the next year, 11-6-2. This past season, their record was 8-8-1.
“We’ve done well,” Mello said. “We made it to the semifinals of the 14-team conference this past year. We have a very young team, good players coming in, so kind of the sky’s the limit for us.”
Mello’s 2019 roster is set, so he’s just watching games, taking notes and networking this weekend. In five years, he estimates he’s recruited at least “half a dozen” players to Carroll by connecting with them through the tournament.
“Recruiting nowadays is not a process that’s just seniors,” Mello said. “It’s talk to players, get them interested, develop a relationship and hopefully we do that.”
Two players with local ties on Carroll’s 2019 roster are junior Parker Bedard and sophomore Noah Romangnuolo, both of Whitefish.
So what do college soccer coaches look for in a potential recruit?
The first thing Mello looks for is the “first touch,” or how a player handles the ball after receiving a pass.
“I want to make sure that when they get a ball sent to them, their second touch isn’t chasing down a bad first touch, so to speak,” Mello said. “They can get it, keep it close. And then good field awareness where they move well, present themselves on good angles is always a nice thing to see.”
Specific to position, “a forward that’s fast and can score some goals, oh my, that’s great.”
Mello looks for “cheeky” midfielders who are “able to spray the ball around” and “tenacious” defenders who can win the ball, send it and “once they send the ball, they initiate the attack, so that’s very important.”
“Pretty simple,” Mello said.
Being a good team player goes a long way, too.
“You watch kind of the the dynamics of how they are and if they’re good teammates you can tell,” Mello said. “If the team has good chemistry that’s always nice cause you know it’s going to carry over.”