Two coaches, a friendship and rivalry
Ryan Summerlin July 27, 2013
Tucked into a corner of Colorado Mountain College, down a hallway and in a dimly lit room, Battle Mountain soccer coach David Cope was setting up a presentation he’d waited 20 years to give.
Thirty-or-so high school players from across the state shuffled into the room, filling up the rows of seats and leaving the tardy to stand in the back.
Cope’s presentation focused on the Huskies’ 2012 run to the boys state soccer title, an unprecedented feat. That year, Battle Mountain became the third Western Slope team to win a state title since 1975 and the first from Class 4A.
“In all my years,” Steamboat Springs soccer coach Rob Bohlmann said, “it was probably the most talented, funnest team I’ve seen.”
Cope tried to explain to the group, which had gathered in town for the Steamboat Mountain Soccer Tournament high school camp, that state championships don’t just happen; they’re built. It’s not about a singular moment, player or game but a representation of something bigger.
“They realized it was more than them,” Cope said about the players on the championship team. “They represented their parents and went on to represent a region.”
And in many ways, the speech symbolized the long-standing Battle Mountain-Steamboat Springs soccer rivalry.
Soccer on the Western Slope has been defined by the two mountain schools. Without Steamboat, Battle Mountain wouldn’t have reached the success it enjoyed in 2012. Without Battle Mountain’s resurgence, there is no rivalry.
At the heart of the competition for the past 20 years have been Cope and Bohlmann, two soft-spoken men with strikingly similar stories. The two men have harvested a unique relationship built on creating a culture not just of winning but of doing it the right way. They’ve also fostered the intense rivalry — one that sticks with players, coaches and fans and that pushes the teams to do anything to win.
As the players filtered out of the room following the presentation, two former Steamboat players stopped briefly to talk, and one athlete’s words illuminated the fierce competition between the schools:
“I still don’t like Battle Mountain,” she said.
Cut from the same cloth
Among the striking similarities between the two coaches — including their similar tactics on the field and their calm demeanors off of it — are the parallels between their experiences growing up 1,200 miles away from each other.
Cope and Bohlmann grew up playing soccer in the late 1970s when the game in the U.S. was experiencing something new.
Pele and the New York Cosmos sold out Giants Stadium and were televised on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
But soccer in the U.S. still was in its infancy.
Bohlmann was growing up in the Dallas area, where the Cowboys own the sports scene. Cope was in Pittsburgh, another area with American football mania.
“I think that one of the reasons I developed such a passion for the game, especially in a football town and gridiron mecca, is guys thought we were playing that communist sport,” Bohlmann said. “We were in the minority and had to stick together. When I think back, that’s when I developed that passion.”
Cope didn’t have much choice. His parents emigrated from England, and the game was instilled in him at a young age.
But he encountered feelings similar to Bohlmann’s in football-crazy Pittsburgh.
“When you showed up at a soccer field with a kid and an accent, you quickly became the coach,” Cope said about his parents.
The two soccer coaches moved to Colorado for similar reasons. Cope planned to spend a post-college year skiing. Bohlmann had visited on ski trips and knew Colorado was the place he wanted to be.
Bohlmann started coaching in 1990. Cope followed suit in 1993.
Little did they know how aligned they’d become or how much their coaching careers would shape soccer on the Western Slope.
The Battle Mountain-Steamboat rivalry has helped define Western Slope soccer for more than a decade, but it wasn’t always like that.
From 1993 to 2002, Steamboat owned it. Steamboat’s true rival at the time was Vail Mountain School.
“Back then, we were definitely more of the powerhouse,” said Eric McClelland, who graduated from Steamboat in 1995. “We were winning the league every year. I never, ever thought of it as a rivalry.”
From 1993 to the first part of 2002, the Steamboat boys team beat Battle Mountain 16 straight times. And it wasn’t always pretty for Cope.
After serving as an assistant in 1991 and 1992, he took over the program in 1993. He went 2-10-2 his first year and 1-12 his second.
During this stretch, Cope leaned on Bohlmann and Vail Mountain School’s Bob Bandoni. Cope saw Steamboat as the program after which to model Battle Mountain.
He knew if Bohlmann and Bandoni could have soccer success in mountain towns, then he could, too.
“There were times in the ’90s we’d play, and my wife would (say), ‘I knew Steamboat was going to win the game before kickoff,’” Cope said. “It was just because of the way they carried themselves, the way they dressed, the way they walked. That was the culture built by Rob. That’s not just a switch you can flip on.”
It also meant there were times Cope didn’t think he’d be back for another year. But Bandoni and Bohlmann saw something in Cope that wasn’t about wins and losses.
The culture of excellence on and off the field that Bohlmann and Bandoni had built, similar to the one created by former Steamboat coach Jim Dudley, was evident in Cope’s program, too.
“I saw that then — those principles that transcend the quality of soccer,” Bandoni said. “Some of that was not in anybody’s control. The foundation that Dave has established was being built years ago. Even when Dave thought it was tumultuous, I was always judging him on the principles of developing youth.”
It’s not a rivalry until both teams win, or in this case, when Battle Mountain tied Steamboat, 2-2, in the second game of 2002.
Cope wanted the Vail Daily to run the headline “Battle Mountain beats Steamboat, 2-2.”
Then in 2003, Battle Mountain finally got a real win, picking up a 2-0 victory.
The victory launched a rivalry and a string of great games. Since 2002, the teams have played 22 games with 11 decided by a one-goal difference and three played to draws.
The teams have combined to win 10 of 13 Western Slope League titles since 2000.
Battle Mountain has become the model of consistency, winning league titles from 2004 to 2007 and from 2010 to 2012.
“We always respected Steamboat, but we always wanted to win,” said Jack Sunderland, who graduated from Battle Mountain in 2011. “If they beat us, they earned it. If we won, we earned it. When we won against Steamboat, it was the happiest I’ve seen Cope. When we lost, it was the same way. He hates losing. Steamboat is his least favorite team to lose to.”
In 2004, the Battle Mountain girls soccer coach position opened up, and the athletic director asked Cope whom he should hire.
Cope went home that night, and there was a carpenter at his house working with his tools all neatly placed.
“I had an epiphany,” Cope said. “I said, ‘Look, know what you’re good at. Do what you’re good at. Be good at your craft.’”
Battle Mountain had found its new girls coach.
“And when I took over the girls, I took Rob’s model for it,” Cope said.
Similar to the boys, Steamboat dominated early on. From 1997 to 2005, Steamboat was 11-0 against Battle Mountain with several playoff runs from Steamboat teams that included top players Kelly Labor and Ann Barney. In 2005, Steamboat picked up a narrow 1-0 win against Battle Mountain on a Labor penalty kick.
“I thought we had a chance that game,” Cope said. “All of us took that game really hard. I had a girl write her college essay about that — how painful it is to invest everything into something and not succeed. But there is something glorious about that. It’s a real experience people in life have.”
The next year, Battle Mountain got its moment, earning a 1-1 tie in 2006 and snapping Steamboat’s 38-game win streak in league play.
“We tied them once. I remember that after all this time,” said Labor, who graduated in 2006 and now serves as an assistant coach at Colorado State University. “Looking back now, it’s not a disappointment. I’m not upset about it now. At the time, I know we all were. We wanted to win.”
Of the 18 girls games since 2004, half have ended with a one-goal differential or a tie. The aggregate score is 23-23 since 2006.
“You were playing against your friends, and that was part of it,” said Emi Birch, who graduated from Steamboat in 2010. “You always want to beat your friends. Rob didn’t want to lose to his friend. When we won against Battle Mountain, we all had a solid and fun week.”
A lasting friendship
It’s hard to call it a rivalry when the two coaches consider one another great friends.
It’s rare they go more than a couple of days without talking to one another.
During the season, they bounce ideas off each other, commiserate about parents, talk about players and just chat.
“We’ll have a 10-minute phone call between games,” Bohlmann said. “Our wives will probably argue that it’s longer than 10 minutes.”
“If we don’t talk every 48 hours, something is wrong,” Cope said.
The friendship always has existed but never was stronger than last season. When Battle Mountain made its historic run to the state championship, Bohlmann didn’t miss a game. After the title was won, Bohlmann, Cope’s family, assistant coaches and a close-knit group of friends remained at the Embassy Suites in Denver for hours, trophy on the bar, stories flowing.
“To get to see that rivalry on the field makes me grin,” Bandoni said. “There is still something refreshing about it. They bring it to the field and let it play out. Their programs are grounded in principle — principles that are fundamental to character development for adolescents. Because of that, each year they layer the foundation of programs based in values. It’s infused a broader culture beyond the program itself.”
While each coach respects the other, there is nothing better than earning a win. Cope has the state championship ring, but Bohlmann holds a career 29-19-7 record in the series.
Without Steamboat’s dominance early on, Battle Mountain wouldn’t be the program it is today. Without the friendship, it’s tough to say whether either coach would still be in the league. Without Steamboat and Battle Mountain continually pushing the sport forward, others such as Eagle Valley and Glenwood Springs wouldn’t have risen to top teams in the Western Slope.
And don’t let Bohlmann or Cope fool you. These games mean more to them than others because the only thing better than having a lifelong friend is beating one.
“I’d be lying to you … if I didn’t say Battle Mountain games you get a little more excited for,” Bohlmann said. “That excitement just grows a little after the great season they had last year. It’s a different team for them. … We have an opportunity to play against the best team in the state from last year. It always ups the excitement and anticipation.”