By Joel Wass
You can add Ryerson’s varsity soccer team to the long list of things that aren’t made like they used to be.
The Rams’ 5-0 playoff loss to Brock University last Wednesday may have been their first kick at the Ontario University Athletic post-season, but it was not their first shot at a provincial championship. From the mid to late ‘60s, Ryerson had one of the best men’s soccer programs in Canada.
“Other universities didn’t want to play us because they didn’t want to get embarrassed,” says Joe Bartalomeo, 55, a winger on the Ryerson men’s soccer team from 1967-1969. “We had a really good team. In those days we could beat anyody.”
From 1965 to 1969 the men’s soccer team, then known as the Ryerson Soccer Zebras, won five consecutive Ontario Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles. Following their championship season in 1968, the men also gave the boot to Eastern Canada and added the Ontario-Quebec Athletic Association trophy to their mantel.
“We had a nucleus of good players and we had a coach who allowed us to play our style,” says Cope Otten, 55, who also played on the Zebras while they were kings of the jungle. “[Head coach Yarik Tarkut] always stood right behind us. If there was ever a problem he’s look after us.”
Tarkut, a former economics professor at Ryerson, coached the Zebras throughout their championship stampede.
Although Ryerson was a technical institute during his era, Tarkut’s teams competed against top-flight university teams such as the University of Western and Queen’s University.
“We often found university competition to be very weak,” says Otten, who played inside right for the Zebras. “We knew we could have ran the score up on anybody.”
Whether it was a college or university, the Zebras trampled every team in its path.
In 1970, Tarkut left the school and Ryerson’s soccer success bounced into oblivion.
While Tarkut was roaming at Rye, Otten says the coach’s formula for success included making sure his team had a good rapport on and off the field.
“Our team spent a lot of time playing euchre together in the cafeteria,” says Tony Leonardi, Bartalomeo’s brother-in-law and a forward on the Zebras. “We were a big family. We even treated our cheerleaders like sisters.”
Leonardi’s team appreciated the cheering, but says in most games the Zebras only needed encouragement for the first 20 minutes.
“[The cheerleaders] would ask us to take it easy on teams because we would always score so fast,” says Leonardi. “I can remember by half-time we would usually be winning at least six nothing.”
Otten says with the wild support from cheerleaders and fans, Zebras games were usually a zoo. Ryerson home games were played at nearby Riverdale Park.
“We were the only winning team at Ryerson, so everyone came out to support us,” says Otten. “I would say we were recognized by at least the majority of the school.”
According to Leonardi, Ryerson’s only real competition in Ontario was from the number-one nationally ranked University of Toronto.
In the ‘60s it was the head coach’s responsibility to organize games against other universities and the Varsity Blues only agreed to play Ryerson twice during their championship runs.
“They were the powerhouse and we wanted to decide who the real champions were, but they would usually refuse to play us,” says Otten of the yellow Blues.
In both matchups U of T left the field with 1-0 victories.
“They would only ever play us at the beginning of season,” says Leonardi. “I don’t want to say the goals they scores were flukes, but we usually dominated most of those games.”
The Zebras dominance in Canada gave them the drive to head south and test their skills against American competition.
Otten says he thought Ryerson’s killer play might drop dead against the University of Akron the evening prior to their showdown.
“We were partying until 3 a.m. the night before, and by the time we woke up we were down 4-0,” he says. Otten says the Zebras ran free in the second half, scoring nine unanswered goals to defeat the National College Athletic Association school 9-4.
The Ohio-based university was so impressed with Ryerson’s outing they signed Otten, Leonardi, Bartalomeo and teammate Lenny Giglio to athletic scholarships the following season.
Otten, who is now a civic engineering consultant in Milton, Ont., says the friendships he made at Ryerson live on today.
“I still see Tony and Joe quite a bit,” says Otten, whose daughter Julie is a first-year radio and television arts student at Ryerson and a current member of the women’s soccer team. “We lost track of Lenny though, He got married in Akron and as far as I know he never came back.”
Otten made his return to Ryerson soccer this year as a spectator at his daughter’s games, but says he was a little confused during her first contest.
“I asked [head coach Jon Sanderson] why the soccer team adopted the same name as the basketball team,” recalls Otten. “When we played the soccer team was the Zebras and the basketball team was the Rams. I’m not sure why we were the Zebras. I never really questioned it. Maybe the team before [our era] had black and white uniforms.”
Otten says the name change wasn’t the only thing that threw him off after witnessing his first Ryerson men’s soccer game in 32 years.
“As long as I’ve played soccer I’ve never seen a referee change his mind,” says Otten while discussing the current team’s tendency to constantly bicker with officials. “I can’t recall our team getting into too many arguments. We would just walk away and keep on playing. If you start arguing you lost your focus.”
Bartalomeo, a self-employed accountant, is currently the vice-president of the Woodbridge Soccer Club. His three sons all play competitive soccer and one competed in the under-14 national soccer tournament last year.
“Almost all the guys who played on our team are continuing in the sport by coaching somewhere,” says Leonardi.
Although he has never coached at the university level, the 55-year-old Leonardi says Ryerson wouldn’t have to kick down his door to convince him to consider coaching for the Rams.
“I wouldn’t mind coaching at a university,” says Leonardi. “Soccer is something that’s been a part of me since I was nine.”
Otten did not have any definite advice on how to bring the blue and gold back to a golden age, but he did have insights on how to recruit more players.
“Why not have a soccer practice on Toronto Island when all the students go there during frosh week?” questions Otten. That’s the only time the entire university gets together and it would be a great opportunity for students to kick a ball around and see what Ryerson soccer is all about.”