This article was published June 21, 2020, in the Daily News-Record.
Roger Mast, like most sports-minded boys his age, grew up playing baseball, basketball, and flag football in Rockingham County in the 1970s — since those were the main options. But he found something new when he became a freshman at Eastern Mennonite High School after attending John Wayland Intermediate.
“When I went to EMHS, football wasn’t an option. I changed schools; sports was a way to connect,” Mast said of the school that still doesn’t offer football. “Soccer was the thing to do at EMHS back in the day” with pickup games in Park View on summer nights as well.
That culture was guided by former EMHS coach Ron Koppenhaver. “He had a way of arm twisting and encouraging the athletes to play,” Mast recalls of Koppenhaver, who died in 2012 in Kansas.
Now nearly 45 after his freshman year at EMHS, Mast has done his share of encouraging and maybe some arm twisting along the way as a long-time soccer coach in his own right. A former player at EMHS (now EMS) and Eastern Mennonite University, Mast is preparing for his 30th season as the head men’s coach for the Royals.
“I would say how fast time flies,” said Mast, 58, when asked of his lengthy tenure. “I guess maybe I am having fun. Life just goes by really, really quickly sometimes. I have a lot of vivid memories of pretty much every season. Each season has its own unique chemistry of players.”
“What goes through my mind is looking back at all of the memories I have had with so many people,” he added. “Be that with players or coaches. You realize all of the people that have influenced me and I have been able to work with.”
He was the Old Dominion Athletic Conference coach of the year in 1996 and 1998, took his 1998 squad to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, and won his 200th game in 2012.
“That was an era that was kind of exciting,” said Mast, a 1985 EMU graduate who also played two years of baseball for the Royals. “The first ODAC title was in 1996. To play in an ODAC championship all four years (1996-99) is quite an accomplishment” for that class.
Mast and his wife, Cheryl (Yoder), who also attended EMHS and graduated from James Madison University, have two sons, and both Grayson and Mark played for their father at EMU. Their mother is Chief Financial Officer for Rockingham County Public Schools.
The influence of Mast goes beyond the field or his own family.
Several of his former players have gone on to coach at the high school or college level. “The list is extensive,” said Mast, who grew up in Mt. Clinton.
One of them is Ted Erickson, who coached the Blue Streaks of Harrisonburg and is now the women’s coach at EMU.
Erickson attended HHS and hoped to play at Division I JMU. But the late Dr. Tom Martin — the long-time JMU coach who passed away in October and was friends with Mast — was up front with Erickson and told him he might not see playing time his until junior year. Martin suggested he attend a smaller school.
“I ended up staying all four years,” Erickson said of EMU. “I think (Mast) has been very good with what he has in the way of a roster and he changes to fit those needs. We had one style as a freshman and then he changed it some our sophomore and junior year and then tweaked it some my senior year.”
“He was able to develop players and make them stars in Division III. Off the field, to his credit, he gets very close to his players. He will get to know them as individuals; he is sincere about it,” Erickson added of Mast, a member of Harrisonburg Mennonite Church. “Once you are done after four years, he doesn’t kick you out the door. I think that comes from his own personal faith.”
Erickson notes that Mast balances his coaching along with a teaching load as an assistant professor in the health and physical education department.
“It is difficult, it is not easy,” Erickson said. “He deeply cares about the university and where it is headed.”
Mast also served as EMU athletic director in 1990 and from 1991-94. He was on the board of a local youth soccer club nearly 20 years. He is one of the few college soccer coaches in the mid-Atlantic region with a doctorate.
Messiah coach Brad McCarty played for Mast at Christopher Dock, a Mennonite high school in Pennsylvania, before Mast coached one season at EMHS then took over at EMU.
“He was a really influential person in my life at that time,” McCarty said. “I had come to know the Lord when I was younger but at that point in my life I was not really living for the Lord. (Mast) was really influential to me.”
“He was the one that told me about Messiah,” McCarty added of that Christian school near Harrisburg, Pennslyvania. “He is someone that I held in high regard as a person, teacher, and coach. He was invaluable in my life; he cared about me.”
McCarty graduated from Messiah in 1993 and has been the coach there since 2009. His team has faced EMU regularly, with the last meeting coming in 2019 as the Royals lost 2-1.
One rival coach Mast goes to for advice is Chris Yeager, the Division III coach of the year in 2010 who has guided Lynchburg in the ODAC for nearly two decades.
As a player at Virginia Wesleyan, Yeager went up against Mast and the Royals. Now he has done that as the Lynchburg coach.
“His teams have always been super competitive and driven,” said Yeager, whose squad beat EMU 3-1 last October. “They always seem to have something in the tank. He does a good job of getting those guys ready to play in big games.”
A year unlike others
There is plenty of motivation for Mast heading into the 2020 season — in whatever form it takes.
Last fall, the Royals were 5-14 with nine straight losses to end the season. “We got hit hard with the injury bug,” he said.
Throw in the uncertainty of COVID-19, and Mast and his fall coaching colleagues may have more questions than answers at this point.
“The question for me is how to plan for a target without knowing what that target is going to be. We are really planning for a number of different scenarios,” Mast said. “Either we hit the ground running and play a full slate of games or another option we could delay and start a little bit later. The worst-case scenario is our season would be cut short. In the ODAC, we are starting conversations right now. It is possible doing an ODAC-only schedule” without non-conference games.
“It is hard to know how to plan because it seems like the target is always moving,” added Mast.
Earlier this month, after clearance from the school, Mast hosted an incoming player who had never set foot on campus. The veteran coach said the day included plenty of social distancing for a family that wanted to check out the campus in person.
For now, EMU plans to begin in-person classes on August 25. The NCAA, notes Mast, said student-athletes can return as early as August 10.
“I think that is an unrealistic expectation to move our student-athletes in that early,” Mast said. “We won’t have all of our housing in place by that time. There is also the cost factor.”
But after three decades at the helm, Mast should be able to adapt to whatever the schedule brings. After all, he has the most wins in soccer history as a coach at EMU.
“His guys are always ready to play,” said Yeager, the Lynchburg coach. “Going against him, I knew his players were always ready for a fight, home or away. That is hard to go against.”