If you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em

Michigan State’s first St. Louis recruits from 1964 reunited in 2001 at a marker for MSU’s 1967 NCAA co-championship. From left: Rich Nelke, Tom Belloli, Guy Busch and Gary McBrady. Courtesy of the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame.

Sixty years ago, the green-and-white-clad men’s soccer players at Michigan State University were mostly green — with envy — when they played St. Louis University.

The Spartans lost four consecutive regular-season games with SLU from 1959-62, a period when the Billikens won three NCAA championships. Things were no better in the postseason. The Bills prevailed, 2-0, in the 1962 NCAA playoffs against MSU. MSU finally beat the Bills in the 1963 regular season, but the final straw came in the playoffs when SLU eliminated the Spartans again.

The solution: If you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em. Thus began a long connection with St. Louis talent that headed to MSU and included goalkeeper (and eventual MSU head coach for 32 seasons) Joe Baum, all-time leading scorer Guy Busch, and NASL, Olympic and U.S. National Team player Buzz Demling. The connection continues today in current head coach and former MSU player Damon Rensing, whose dad, Gary, played at St. Louis U. and with the NASL’s St. Louis Stars.

The connection started almost by coincidence. Mutual friends introduced Denny Checkett, an MSU walk-on player from St. Louis, to Tom Belloli while Checkett visited St. Louis after the 1963 season. (Checkett went on to become the men’s head soccer coach at California State-Fullerton in the mid-1970s.) Belloli played junior ball for Kutis, coached by Tom’s dad, Ed. Kutis, which would win the 1964 national Junior Cup, had the potential to provide much-coveted St. Louis talent for MSU.

Ed invited MSU coach Gene Kenney to stay at his house for a recruiting trip during the 1963 CYC High School Christmas Tournament in St. Louis. They became fast friends and opened the pipeline of players from St. Louis to Michigan State. Tom Belloli, Busch, Gary McBrady and Rich Nelke, all from the Kutis Junior team, formed the first group of St. Louisans signed by the Spartans.

“What St. Louis players brought to Michigan State was that we all played on winning teams,” Busch said. “Michigan State already had a lot of really good players. We were tougher, and we knew how to win: Let’s share the ball and play. It worked.”

At a time when freshmen couldn’t play varsity college sports, the St. Louis imports made their first impact in 1965. The Spartans advanced all the way to the NCAA finals, where they lost to — who else? — St. Louis U., 1-0, on a penalty-kick goal from Carl Gentile before 10,000 fans at Francis Field. MSU finished with a 10-2-0 record, with both losses to St. Louis U., including a 3-2 regular-season defeat.

It was a breakout year for Busch. In his first varsity season, he scored 24 goals, including two goals (and an assist on the third) in MSU’s 3-1 NCAA semifinal victory over Army. His 1965 goal total stands as the second highest in MSU’s history. He finished his three-year varsity career with a still-standing school record of 130 points on 54 goals and 22 assists.

Busch is also remembered for his role in the 1967 NCAA final, again vs. St. Louis U. at Francis Field. The teams attempted to play in what was more like a swamp after heavy rains drenched the field. “You’d kick the ball 10 yards and it would stop,” Busch said. “Guys were sliding and falling.”

One of them was Busch, who slid into the goal post head-first late in the first half. The game was called immediately, co-champions were declared, and Michigan State had its first NCAA soccer championship. Busch says he remembers nothing until getting on the plane back to Michigan State several hours later.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Michigan State pipeline to St. Louis gushed with players. Baum set a school record with a 0.37 goals-against average in 1966. Tom Kreft had an MSU-record 15 assists in 1968 and a career-record 32 assists. Demling was a first-team All-American in 1970. John Houska (1970) and Steve Twellman (1971) were second-team All-Americans. From 1965-71, MSU compiled a 62-8-11 record. The Spartans won another NCAA co-championship in 1968, when they battled Maryland to a 2-2 standoff after two overtimes.

While it would seem that St. Louis players were godsends to Michigan State soccer, Busch sees it the other way around. He spent a year working three jobs after graduating from McBride High School in 1963 and felt fortunate that he and his St. Louis teammates had full free tuition at MSU starting in 1964. “The opportunity to get a degree at Michigan State and play soccer was life-changing,” Busch said. “My parents couldn’t afford to send me to junior college, much less Michigan State.”

His MSU degree launched Busch into a successful sales career that started with Monsanto in St. Louis. There was another interesting postscript concerning Ed Belloli, Busch’s coach from fourth grade. Ed’s good friend and MSU soccer coach, Kenney, helped Belloli become the equipment manager at the MSU fieldhouse.

“When you look at a rerun of the 1979 NCAA basketball championship game, when MSU had Magic Johnson, sitting at the end of the bench was an older, silver-haired guy looking pretty good,” Busch said. “That was Ed. He was the key for getting us to Michigan State. All of the St. Louis players are forever grateful to Ed Belloli for helping them get the scholarships to MSU. He made it happen! Kenney picked the right man to provide the pipeline of talent.”

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