If a junkyard bulldog took on adult-like facial features, it would most likely resemble the mug of Sandpoint High boys soccer coach Randy Thoreson, especially as his brow furrows during a match.
Thoreson, 58, could be Vince Lombardi incarnate. Thoreson can be gruff and no-nonsense like the late Hall of Fame pro football coach. But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two is Thoreson is a winner and demands nothing less than excellence from his players.
Thoreson’s Bulldogs wrapped up their seventh Inland Empire League championship in the last eight years Tuesday in a 2-0 win at Coeur d’Alene. In eight years under Thoreson, Sandpoint is 136-12-7 overall (.920) and 82-5-10 in league (.942) with four state titles in the past five years.
With a final regular-season match today at Lewiston, Sandpoint is 13-1-2 overall, 9-0-2 in league.
So what’s the reason for all the success?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Thoreson said. “Obviously, the key ingredient is tremendous kids to work with. You’ve got to have horses to win the race. I’ve been fortunate to have great athletes to work with through the years. Then it trickles down to all the support in town.”
At the root of the support is a well-grounded club program, where Thoreson got his start in the sport some 17 years ago.
“The club program in any sport is a real key issue,” Thoreson explained. “You get kids playing at a competitive level real early. The stronger the club program the stronger the kids are coming into your program. Look at what it’s done in the other sports like wrestling and volleyball.”
Former Coeur d’Alene coach John Smith watched Thoreson build the dynasty at Sandpoint.
“It’s not that it can’t be done at other schools, but it’s a little bit easier in a town like Sandpoint because they’re big enough to have the numbers,” said Smith, who has been out of coaching for two years but whose team’s regularly challenged Sandpoint. “They’ve got enough athletes but small enough to be a tight community. It’s kind of a unique situation. It’s big enough but not too big.”
Smith pointed out that the club program in Coeur d’Alene is top rate, too, but the athletes end up going to two different schools when they reach high school. So building a program that consistently puts up the numbers that Sandpoint does is less likely.
But Sandpoint’s success has more to do with Thoreson than the fact that it’s a one-school town.
“When you’re looking at their program from afar, as I am now, it’s fun to see the way Randy develops those kids and the way they buy into his program,” Smith said. “They play a very, very hard-nosed, in-your-face kind of soccer. It’s very physical, but they’re also very skilled players. The combination of the two is really tough to beat.”
Thoreson commands respect from his players. Additionally, he demands that they respect the game.
“My philosophy is the kids need to respect themselves, the game and the coaching staff,” Thoreson said. “Once all those things are in place, you try to control the things you can in games. Fitness and nutrition are important, and you develop a system with the athletes you have.
“We spend a lot of time on technical stuff. After that there’s a tremendous amount of mental preparation that goes into the game to get them focused and ready to play every game.”
Perhaps the one variable in which Thoreson puts the most stock – outside of tactical things – is conditioning.
“He’s a real taskmaster in terms of conditioning,” said Ed Bock, who preceded Thoreson for 11 years. Thoreson was Bock’s assistant the final three seasons.
“His teams are always ready to play. They’re probably the best-conditioned team in the state every year,” Bock said.
From the standpoint of on-field strategy, Thoreson believes the game begins first with defense. He’s employed what he calls a flatback four defensive strategy, in which four defenders essentially build a wall in front of the goalie. It’s rare that opponents break through that wall for an uncontested shot.
Once Sandpoint has possession out of defense, the Bulldogs immediately attack the opponent.
“It’s all rooted out of defense,” Bock said.
“Ball control and ball possession is a big factor,” Thoreson said. “We don’t like to have to regain possession. We like to keep it.”
Bulldog senior forward Chase Lowther played soccer until quitting in the sixth grade. He turned back out last year at the urging of Thoreson.
“He’s very technically and tactically smart about the game,” Lowther said of Thoreson. “He didn’t play the game, but he’s made himself into a great coach. When he talks you respect what he says. He’s proved himself.”
Sandpoint teams have outscored opponents 56-2 in the last five years at state. One of those two goals came in a 1-0 loss to Kuna in the 2003 final. Kuna had just one shot in the match, but it made the most of it.
Although Thoreson’s teams have had 135 other wins and just 11 other losses, that one loss will probably haunt Thoreson forever he said.
“The sport is so fickle,” he said. “You can dominate a team for 79 of 80 minutes and lose.”
Thoreson has been afforded the ability to coach late in life at a time when a lot of coaches are thinking about retirement. He credits a lot of that to owning his own construction business.
He’s not sure how much longer he’ll coach. But he continues to have a passion for the sport and will remain involved as long as that passion remains.
Sandpoint will no doubt challenge for another state title later this month. But the Bulldogs could find things much more difficult next year when they undergo what Thoreson calls their first serious rebuilding season since he took over.
The Bulldogs were thought to be rebuilding last year, too, and all they did was shut out all three opponents at state. One thing is for sure, though: When the Bulldogs turn out next August, Thoreson will take a few moments to teach the newer team members about the program’s tradition.
“I let them know on Day One what has preceded them,” Thoreson said. “We have a target on our back every year. I tell them to respect that. I tell them that it makes a team’s season to beat them. It requires unbelievably hard work. We will play harder than anybody we play. It takes a price.”