It was the summer of 1995. A skinny, nervous, about-to-be freshman in high school Dana Sulonen walked up to the soccer fields that were once in front of Kent State University, Trumbull campus, for her first ever high school practice.
It was on this day that I first met my soon to be soccer coach, Dan Houle.
When you first meet Houle (to players he was never known as coach Houle, but simply "Houle"), I didn't know what to expect. He was as tall as me with skinny chicken legs that all of the senior players liked to bust his chops about. But you could tell that he had a rapport with the players, and that when it came to the game of soccer, he knew what he was talking about.
Little did I know that on this day I would meet a man that would not only help me become a better athlete, but still play a role in my life today.
Houle began his coaching career at Howland, where he was the junior varsity coach for five years before taking over the Champion girls' program in 1992 - on a dare from the man who started it all.
"I took this job kind of on a dare from the former coach Ron Gordon (who started the Champion girls program in 1991)," Houle said. "He and I were pretty good friends and he dared me to come over and coach the girls at Champion. And I never left.
"I enjoy it. I always say, I have a son, but I don't have any daughters. These girls are my daughters."
Over the years, he has coached 22 years worth of daughters, won numerous league titles, been the district runner-up more times than he can remember and won three district titles. On Thursday night, after Champion beat Rootstown, 1-0, for the district title, he told me - the now sports editor of the local paper and one of his many "daughters" over the years - that he is retiring at the end of the season.
During his tenured career, there have obviously been very memorable moments. But a few stick out more than others.
"The game that I got my 200th victory," Houle recalled. "We were at Newton Falls and my son was there from Cleveland - he came down. The girls played their hearts out to get the win for me. They gave me the game ball. It was just a really nice moment."
While that's one of Houle's fondest memories, mine is a little different - probably because the game I remember didn't help him get any closer to that 200th win.
The game occurred during my senior year in the fall of 1998. We were playing Hubbard at their home field on a Saturday afternoon. It was hot. I'm talking 90 degrees in September hot.
Hubbard at the time was the team to beat in Trumbull County and in the league, which at that time was the TAC-8. It was a hard-fought game. I remember never running so much and trying so hard during my four-year career. We wanted to win. We wanted it bad. And we had our chances, but couldn't get the ball into the back of the net. At the end of the game, we tied with the Eagles, 0-0.
It might not have been a win in the record books, but you would have thought we won state. And by the looks of the Eagles, they looked defeated as ever. It might have been a tie, but it was the best game we played together as a group. And Houle was all smiles.
The smile that he had with our team 15 years ago was the same smile he had Thursday night in Rootstown. But this time, his team got him the victory.
It was a great defensive effort, with stellar play by goalkeeper Kelly Robinson, that allowed the Golden Flashes to move on to the Division III regional semifinal - a game Houle has only been a part of three times in his career.
More times than not, this job has many perks. I get paid to watch sporting events. I cover the Ohio State Buckeyes on a regular basis. I've met famous athletes and coaches. I get to do a job I love. But it was games like Thursday night that really make this job special - getting to interview my former coach in one of his last games.
From every female soccer player that ever took the field at Champion, thank you Houle. You are the best there is.