Walla Walla Soccer Coach A Treasure

Steve Rapp
Date Published: 
Seattle Times

WALLA WALLA - Some of the treasures in the Walla Walla Valley are well-known. Everyone knows about Walla Walla sweets.

Most people in the area know how Kim Cox has made winners of DeSales football and baseball teams for several years.

Yet some prizes are not so widely recognized. Mark Francis, Walla Walla Community College women's soccer coach, is content to remain anonymous in this area.

"I'm not someone who seeks profile," he said. "I'd like it (the school's soccer program) to be well known and respected, but I do what I do."

Yet he has the credentials to be a household word. In addition to his WWCC job, Francis is in his second year as age-group head coach in the Olympic Development Program for women under 19 for Region 4. The ODP is a feeder system for the U.S. women's Olympic team.

"There are only four regions in the country, so it is a wonderful opportunity," Francis said. "That means I get to coach the best 17- and 18-year-olds in 14 states."

The national team represents the United States in major international events, such as the Olympics and the World Championships. The next World Championship tournament is in two years at eight sites in the United States and the next Olympics will be in 2000.

The U.S. women took third place in the World Championships and won the Olympic gold medal in 1996.

"There is some pressure on the U.S. to win," Francis said. "Especially since the Worlds are on our home soil."

The U20 national team plays in tournaments throughout the world, giving promising teen-age women international experience. Its first test will be this summer in the Nordic Cup in Norway. The United States won it for the first time last summer.

While not many people may know about Francis' involvement on the national scene, he's developed a solid reputation among area soccer fans for his work in local programs.

He has done a remarkable job building WWCC's two-year-old program. In their first year, the Warriors missed the NWAACC playoffs by just one goal. This year they went all the way to the semifinals. They also earned the honor of allowing the fewest goals of any team in the conference.

He also has the respect of the soccer elite, such as Leslie Gallimore, University of Washington women's head coach, and head coach of all age groups in Region 4.

"He's very good at getting the most out of his players," Gallimore said. "Some kids he coached as the U15 coach four or five years ago are now playing in top Division 1 programs."

Meotis Erikson is one of them. Francis coached her when she entered the ODP program at age 11, supervised her coaches for the next six years in his position as head coach of the Washington East in the ODP and coached her again when she was 18.

Now she is a starting forward at Notre Dame, the No. 2-ranked team in the country until they were upset 2-1 by Connecticut in the final four.

"Mark always challenges you," she said. "At every training session he wanted you to not just run. He expects you to always be thinking about the game. He gave me the opportunity to step up my level."

Erikson has an impressive resume. The Kennewick native was selected to the Big East All-Conference first team this year as a freshman, scoring 23 goals.

Last year at Kamiakin High School, she was voted National Player of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association. She scored 132 goals in her high school career, and was the three-time Washington state player of the year.

"I had a little part in her development," Francis said.

She went last year with Francis to the Interregional Tournament and was selected for the U20 national team.

Francis grew up playing soccer, called football in his native Trinidad. His first love was cricket, but he switched to soccer when he emigrated to Brooklyn in 1971. He entered Whitman College in Walla Walla in 1973 at age 16, but didn't play his first year.

"He didn't play his first year because he was concerned about his academics" said Floyd Bunt, Whitman's soccer coach at the time. "He realized why he was there, and he wanted to establish himself academically."

He played different positions during his three-year college career.

"He played wing early," Bunt said. "He didn't score much. He had a lot of assists. Most scoring plays involved him from the left wing. His senior year, the weak spot on the team was defense. We put him there. He saw that as the best way to help the team."

Francis was an all-conference defender that year.

He returned to coach at Whitman in 1981, and he has now been coaching soccer for 17 years. He entered the ODP program in 1989 and was invited to join the regional staff his first year.

Asked why he doesn't coach at a Division 1 school, he said his family is here, and he gets his kicks out of the ODP. In addition to coaching, he teaches math and is the multicultural coordinator at WWCC.

"I wear three hats, so why would I give that up for a Division 1 job?" he asked.