Longtime UMass men’s soccer coach Sam Koch dies after two-year battle with sinus cancer

By Mark Chiarelli

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Collegian file photo

Collegian file photo

Sam Koch, longtime head coach of the Massachusetts men’s soccer team who led the program to unprecedented success, including a trip to the 2007 College Cup, died Sunday after a two-year battle with sinus cancer. He was 59.

“We have lost a great coach and friend with Sam’s passing,” Athletic Director John McCutcheon said in a statement released by the University on Monday.

“His wonderful spirit and caring way will be missed by all of us and we are grateful to have had Sam in our lives.”

The winningest coach in team history, Koch built a once-dying program into a regular Atlantic 10 contender. He amassed 222 victories in 23 seasons at UMass, leading the program to two A-10 championships, three NCAA tournament appearances and a trip to the national semifinal.

The Concord native graduated from Colby College in 1979 as a four-year soccer letterwinner with a bachelor’s degree in History and Environmental Science. Koch was an assistant coach at Brown and Boston College and head coach at Stanford from 1984-89 before taking over at UMass in 1991 for what was expected to be the program’s final season.

A four-time A-10 Coach of the Year, Koch coached two All-Americans, a two-time A-10 Offensive Player of the Year, an A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, an A-10 Midfielder of the Year, two A-10 rookies of the year and two all-conference selections over the course of his career. In 2002, he passed former coach Lawrence Briggs on the program’s all-time wins list.

On Aug. 7, 2012, Koch informed his team that he had been diagnosed with sinus cancer. He continued to roam the UMass sidelines for the next two seasons after a brief absence despite the physical toll of his cancer and traveling from Amherst to Boston to receive regular treatment.

“This is obviously a difficult time for my family and myself,” Koch said at the time. “I told my players to focus on the goals we put in place every year which includes winning an Atlantic 10 Championship; they must not dwell on my situation, but continue to do the right things on and off the field as they have done in the past.”

Koch’s passing comes less than a year after legendary softball coach Elaine Sortino died following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Koch coached an array of players during his 23 seasons at UMass and the overwhelming message from many was that he was as much a father figure and a friend as he was simply a soccer coach. Koch would often leave his office door open for any player who wanted to come by and talk.

“He was definitely the type of guy I could walk in his office and tell him I had 30 minutes to talk and we’d be in there for an hour,” rising senior captain Matt Keys said on Monday.

“He was just the type of guy you could have enormous conversations with and he could tell stories. He was definitely more than just a coach, he was more of a friend and a father.”

Brett Canepa, a former captain and recent graduate, echoed that sentiment.

“Soccer comes second in his life,” he said. “As a person, he’s an absolutely fantastic guy. He loved the game, he loved his team, he loved his family. He’s a loving father (first) and then soccer came second. All those characteristics, every day was positive. He was always smiling.”

Canepa served as captain his junior and senior seasons under Koch. During his junior year, he shared the captaincy with then-senior Dominic Skrajewski. Both men reflected on how Koch created an inviting, calm atmosphere and cared for his players.

“From day one when I came on my recruiting trip, he just made it feel like home, he made it feel like UMass was just my fit and the place for me,” Skrajewski said. “When I told him I was interested in architecture – his father was one of the better architects out there that worked on some major projects – that not only could we talk about soccer but also within school. I was actually in his office daily within the past two years of being at UMass.”

Koch is remembered as a leader both on and off the field who did his job with a positive attitude. His ability to make those around him laugh and constantly deliver one-liners were just a few qualities that every former player enjoyed.

“He was an absolutely tremendous leader,” Canepa said. “A positive guy and just a great guy all around. He’ll be missed. Everyone’s going to miss him.”

According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, funeral services for Koch will be held Sunday, Aug. 3, at noon at Memorial Chapel at Northfield Mount Hermon.

Koch is survived by his wife Suzanne and their four children, Christopher, Jeffrey, Benjamin and Katherine.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli. Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.