After 17 years coaching at Point Park University, it took a pandemic for Jeroen Walstra to step away from coaching soccer at a school where he left an indelible mark.
Widely respected in the Pittsburgh soccer community along with the administration at Point Park and revered many who played for him, Walstra, a native of the Netherlands, wasn’t comfortable with coaching the Point Park men’s team as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the River States Conference remain committed to moving forward with Fall sports, including soccer.
On Friday, the school announced that Walstra would be retiring. His assistant, Edward Child will take over as the program’s interim coach.
“I thought about it — I was hoping to coach a few more years at Point Park,” Walstra said. “I don’t see how it’s going to be done. You have no idea who’s sick. Who’s not sick. You have to assume everyone is. You are putting yourself up to failure. We’re gathering 50 kids and coaches on a bus. What’s going to happen, say, we’re in Indiana one day for a game, then in Kentucky the next day when a kid gets sick on Friday? One of us would have to drive kid in a rental car back to Pittsburgh.”
Walstra, who also has own practice, Cohen & Walstra, where he provides expertise in vocational rehabilitation, assessing pre-injury and post-injury earning capacity, analyses of lost earnings, marketing analysis and testimony, spent many months preparing and getting ready for his 18th season coaching a Point Park soccer team.
He was excited about bringing back another strong squad with numerous new recruits.
At the same time, as he weighed the risks under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, deep down he began to hope that the Fall season would be postponed.
“It’s a good team. I wish I could do it. There are too many uncertainties,” Walstra added. “I waited because, like many, I thought things would get better. Right now, we still have around a 5% to 6% positivity rate (in Allegheny County).”
It wasn’t an easy decision for a coach who’s done so much to not only steer the men’s program he’s coached since 2007, but the school’s women’s program he was instrumental in getting started.
Walstra started at Point Park as an adjunct professor, teaching a business class, when the opportunity came up to coach a newly forming women’s club team in 2002.
“Point Park was so good to me in so many ways,” Walstra said.
“They asked me when the (women’s) club program was forming, and I said no (in 2002). Then, a year later (2003) I was interested. Took the job. We had to recruit kids in dorms to make sure we had enough players.”
Previously, Walstra was a goalkeeper for the prestigious club KHFC in Haarlem, Netherlands, which is currently in the 3rd Division, from 1978-79 and 1980-87. He moved to the United States in the early-1990s, where he lived in New York until 1997, focusing on his business career.
It was also around this time, when Walstra, who got back into soccer in the late 1990s as a goalkeeping coach at the ODP level and with Beadling, became the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s goalkeeping coach, a post he held for 12 seasons (2005-2017).
Walstra guided the new women’s soccer program at Point Park through significant growing pains, as they officially began completing in the NAIA in 2005.
“It was hard. There were games when we were losing 12-0. It was hard finding teams to play as bad as we were,” Walstra quipped. “We practiced at the North Side Commons, it wasn’t a safe field. Eventually, we’d move to a better facility, But, the kids would try.”
Staying the course, Walstra started to see a gradual turnaround with the women’s team, then took over the men’s program in 2007, where for a few years he coached both programs.
“Every year things got a little better,” Walstra said. “Still, during those early years, between the two teams, we’d lose between 30 games!”
“He kept working and doing what the University asked and required of him,” Shane Lucas, a former player at Point Park for Walstra from 2007-2012, said.” At a smaller University, like Point Park, coaches sometimes have to wear multiple hats. He really helped Point Park’s athletic program get to where it is today.”
“To appreciate winning, you have to sometimes get beat up, and fail. I never lost like that in my life,” Lucas said. “It was my first year as a captain. We had a lot of conversations one-on-one. He gave me respect but also provided me with a lot of responsibility that allowed me to grow from year-to-year.:
Lucas and many who played for Walstra appreciated their coach’s ability to hold them to high standards and be open-minded at the same time.
“As fun hearted as a person as he is, he was also very serious. Sometimes with him, business meant business. Work was work. Fun was fun. We found a healthy balance,” Lucas explained.
Once after the team’s van showed up late for 7:30 a.m. training session, Walstra decided the next day to drive the van and all his players to North Park for a 5:30 a.m. run.
“It was a wake-up call,” Lucas recalled. “Many of us weren’t used to someone at Point Park with high standards like that. We went and we ran. That was a great experience for players that were there. Ones that would be there for the years to come. It was an opportunity to see that he was serious. Wanted us to be responsible and disciplined.”
In terms of connecting and mentoring players on a one-on-one basis, Walstra’s straight-forward approach to everything was effective in dealing with most young college student-athletes.”
“He taught me a lot with honest evaluation,” Lucas said. “I always took it respectfully. He is a very caring person, but then he has a way of telling you that you’re slow and your left foot sucks. He’s been around the game for a long time. Played at a high level. I took those evaluations as a motivating tool. Realized, maybe he’s right.”
Most observers shouldn’t let Walstra’s overall record (107-116-7 in 13 seasons) as the Pioneers’ men’s coach fool anyone.
After a few rebuilding years, Walstra’s sole focus at the school beginning in 2010 shifted to the men’s program, which he built into a consistent winner and became the longest running coach in the program’s history with the most wins. Until this week’s resignation, he was also the most tenured coach in any sport at the Downtown Pittsburgh based school.
“Coach Walstra will be a huge loss for not only the men’s soccer program, but our athletic department as a whole,” Point Park Director of Athletics John Ashaolu said through a school statement on Friday. “Jeroen is single-handedly responsible for setting the building blocks for both our men’s and women’s soccer programs and their success over the years. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.”
The Pioneers won 98 games over his final 10 years of coaching from 2010-19, an average of 9.8 wins per season. The Pioneers have posted double-digit wins in seven of the last nine years and made eight straight playoff appearances from 2011-18.
“He put in a lot of hard work,” Lucas said. “Our first year, we won just one game. To go from that, to a 12 win season in just a few years. That’s a great achievement.”
In Walstra’s final season at the helm, the Pioneers were 15-3 in 2019 for their most wins ever in a single season.
Walstra led Point Park men’s soccer to its first-ever NAIA national tournament appearances and conference championships in 2012 and 2013.
Those came as members of the KIAC (now known as the River States Conference). He was named conference coach of the year three times — in 2011 when the Pioneers won the American Mideast Conference regular-season championship and again in the KIAC in 2012 and 2013.
Even with numerous successes on the field, when asked about his favorite moments during his years at Point Park, Walstra points to the relationships he built and the connections he made with the student-athletes he coached and mentored.
“The winning moments are always special,” Walstra said. “But it’s the players. They’re not going to become professional soccer players. If you go to Point Park, they need something else. The bottom line, I wanted to help them become the best they can be in life.”
Recruiting players, meeting families and making trips were among his highlights.
Walstra used his international recruiting ties to attract student-athletes from all over the world to Point Park. He brought players from over 40 countries to Downtown Pittsburgh.
Walstra’s teams came from five of the seven continents with Australia and Antarctica being the only exceptions.
“Some players were the first in their families to go to the United States. To go to college,” Walstra said. “Sitting in kitchen with parents, sometimes not knowing the language they’re speaking. Traveling to places like Sheffield, England, building those relationships with players who would help get other players from the same area. We had a lot of success with this.”
While he didn’t stay on as women’s coach after 2009, Walstra said taking them on trip to his home country, The Netherlands and France was a highlight too.
“It was best thing we ever with them. Take them to Amsterdam and Paris,” Walstra said. “At one point, we were walking through Paris, and one of our players was so moved,” Walstra shared.
“We also played soccer there. But those aren’t the things that stood out. Best thing I did was expose them to foreign countries — see the world.”
In some cases, it’s one thing to have diverse teams that include international players from many different countries, but also include local players like Lucas, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and went to Steel Valley High School. Walstra found a way to foster inclusion and diversity together to make it work at Point Park.
“There’s something about him about being from Netherlands, and his connections in places like Germany, Austria and England that helped. But he gained instant respect from players from all around the world,” Lucas said. “His ability to connect with players from all over world was an asset. This helped me immensely too. Often times I was the one player who would show new players around. I enjoyed it. It was an opportunity to connect with them right away. For example, I connected immediately with Alex Sala, who was from Austria. I injected myself and we became very good friends.”
Like many coaches that come from Europe and overseas, Walstra had to adjust to the American version of the game.
Some tactics that many European players like Walstra learned when he was young, like playing a flat-four defense, were not common with Lucas and many of the American players he was coaching at Point Park at that time.
“A lot of local players, we were learning simple tactics — flat four or even three in the back,” Lucas said. “It was an adjustment for him at first. We played a lot of stopper-sweeper at the youth level and high schools back in those days. I appreciated him trying to understand how things were done from an American standpoint, but get us all on the same page.”
Walstra also pointed to other ties that keep him bonded to the players from Point Park soccer teams he coached through the years.
“One player, Miquel Alverez, I activity recruited was one good example,” Walstra shared. “I saw him on the street once he was so excited to tell me he was getting married. I never get invited to weddings, and it just so happened that I got invited to four weddings on the same day as his, so I couldn’t make it.”
He pointed to the recruitment of Francis Tabi from Ghana, as one of many success stories.
“He couldn’t get into Point Park at first, but still came to Pittsburgh, attended classes at CCAC. He got his associates (degree), then transferred to Point Park,” Walstra said. “On the field, he could not run for more than 10 minutes. But he changed his diet. He was really good, and really fast. Stayed his entire four years at Point Park. Became a really good player for us.”
Tabi graduated from Point Park in 2013 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. For the past six years, the native of Ghana has been a Safety Systems Engineer for Pittsburgh-based Bombardier.
“Those are my favorite moments,” Walstra added.
“The foundation what he was able to lay and his willingness to keep building. Sticking to what he believed was right culture, proved he was the right fit for the school,” Lucas added. “It showed as he continued to recruit good players and helped everyone along the way on and off the field. His career speaks for itself. To win a lot — he had to lose a lot. And we did in the early years.”
“I hope that culture he built, stays,” Lucas stated, then added. “At first I was shocked at the timing of his announcement (to retire), but knowing him, I could tell he was concerned, and he’s not one to hold back his opinion, or how he feels.”
So now what’s next in store for Jeroen Walstra?
As he keeps busy with his practice, he also hopes to remain involved in soccer, with some offers to continue to do instructional goalkeeping work and for camps, and possibly back to ODP, but he’s taking a careful but purposeful approach in the interim as the current pandemic endures.
“I quit my job because of it,” Walstra exclaimed.
“It weighs very heavily on my mind. I can wait to get back to soccer.”