Benton marks milestone win surounded by former, current players

Oppenheim-Ephratah/St. Johnsville coach Zale Benton (back row, center) is joined by current and former players in a postgame celebration after recording her 300th career coaching victory Wednesday against Fort Plain at Solders and Sailors Memorial Park in St. Johnsville. (The Leader-Herald/James A. Ellis)

ST. JOHNSVILLE — Through her coaching career that started in 1986, coach Zale Benton has seen many changes in the sport of girls’ soccer.

But one thing has remained constant, strong, competitive, well coached teams in St. Johnsville.

Wednesday night the Oppenheim-Ephratah/St. Johnsville girls’ team defeated Fort Plain 2-1 in a Western Athletic Conference match at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Park to give Coach Benton her 300th career coaching victory.

“It’s been a lot of years,” she said. “I have been very, very fortunate to have many good coaches underneath me and a good youth program here to teach the kids when they are little and the community support has been amazing even in the down years.”

During her 33 years of coaching in St. Johnsville, Coach Benton’s teams have won one league title, multiple sectional championships, made three state final four appearances and claimed the 2000 New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D state championship.

“One league title in 33 years,” coach Benton said. “That was the year, Karen Eggelston, whose daughter Sydney now plays for me, was on the team and we beat Cobleskill-Richmondville here to win the title. Being such a small school we have always said we can get pounded in the league and that will help us in the postseason. That’s the exciting part. I always preach to the kids to play hard because the post-season is when we like to come alive. We like to play in November.”

When she started out in St. Johnsville, Benton was not looking to be the girls’ varsity soccer coach.

“I was a basketball coach and Lou Miklic, who was the athletic director at the time, came to me and asked me to coach soccer,” she said. “I said I didn’t know much about it. He just said you’ll be OK. The first game we got really trounced by Fonda when Bill Bowler was coaching and they put a hurting on us.”

Even as the sport evolved with rule changes and styles of play, Benton has been able to keep pace.

“I have been lucky with my daughters, Nicole and Jess, playing in the offseason for some really good clubs, so I study,” she said. “I try to learn from everyone I meet. My head isn’t so big that someone else can’t help me.”

Having a husband who was a coach helped during the more than three decades on the sidelines.

“I have been really lucky because I have a great sounding board at home,” Ken is phenomenal. He is the ultimate coach. We bounce things off each other.”

Ken Benton is also a 300-win coach, reaching the milestone as the varsity wrestling coach at Amsterdam High School.

One of the unique things to happen during her coaching career in St. Johnsville is that the team itself has had three different identities over the years.

“We have really evolved from St. Johnsville when we were the Lady Saints, to St. JOEs [merged team with Oppenheim-Ephratah] when we were the Saint Hawks. I still have a tie-dyed shirt with a hawk with a halo. Now, after the school merger, we are the Oppenheim-Ephratah/St. Johnsville Lady Wolves. So we have been Saints, Saint-Hawks and now Wolves.”

After the Wolfpack’s win Wednesday night, a large crowd of former and current players swarmed onto the pitch at Soldiers and Sailors Park to congratulate Coach Benton on the milestone victory.

Coach Benton summed up the experience saying, “I have been lucky. I have had some great athletes and great people supporting me.”

By Paul Wager

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