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SOU will retain embattled coach Clement

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University has decided to stick with head women's soccer coach Jon Clement after complaints from players led to an investigation following the 2007 season.

According to several players, SOU athletic director Dennis Francois and assistant AD Matt Sayre told freshmen, sophomores and juniors of the school's decision in a private meeting Thursday.

Junior midfielder Nicole Vilarino, a North Medford High graduate who felt like she was treated unfairly by Clement, said the reaction to the announcement was mixed.

"I know there was a couple (players) who were pretty upset," she said. "I didn't start crying, but that wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear."

"It's really tough on a lot of people because this is the end of their soccer careers," Vilarino added, explaining that she and "a couple" teammates won't return for their senior season if Clement stays on.

Clement and Francois declined to comment. Vice President of Student Affairs Jonathan Eldridge said, "Any personnel actions that we handle internally we're not privy to share, so I can't comment on whether or not anything is happening or whether or not any actions are being taken."

Clement just completed his second season at SOU after being hired in 2006.

Most of the complaints against him stem from an alleged pattern of favoritism and poor communication that led to a division on the team, but two players said Clement also arranged private social meetings that made them feel uncomfortable.

Senior goal keeper and team co-captain Melanie Hopkins said that in 2006 she was asked to meet Clement in front of the SOU library. There, after Hopkins revealed a personal tragedy, Clement hugged her.

"He was like, 'Give me a hug,'" Hopkins said. "I said 'No' quite a few times and after that I was like, 'I just want to go home.' After the next few weeks of practices I confided in teammates and they saw how he treated me differently, like I was his favorite."

A similar incident alarmed Judi Dietz, a senior and another co-captain who was asked by Clement to play tennis. She did, but regretted it later.

"I felt uncomfortable," Dietz said. "I talked to (Sayre) and he said that he used to take (football) players to go play racquetball to improve their footwork, but we didn't do that. I really just stood there and rallied with him. My intuition told me that something was up. It was weird.

"Jon crossed the line between coaching players and being a friend. I don't want a friend as a coach. I want a coach."

Though both Hopkins and Dietz made it clear that there was no indiscretion, several players point to a pattern which they say goes back to Clement's last job at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. There, Clement led the NCAA Division III Hilltoppers to 18 victories in two seasons and earned the Heartland Conference coach of the year award after his 2004 squad posted a 12-6-2 mark and captured the school's first-ever league title. When asked why Clement left St. Edward's after just two years, Kiha Thomas, his former assistant coach, declined to comment.

All non-seniors were invited to Thursday's meeting and about "12 to 15" showed up, according to junior co-captain Morgan Spencer. Francois and Sayre "made it seem like the investigation was still under way," but added that Clement would keep his job, said sophomore forward Alyssa Zysett, who also attended.

The news hit some harder than others. Zysett and Spencer, like Vilarino, both said they would not play for SOU if Clement remained as coach. According to Zysett, they weren't alone in their decision.

"I can tell you that it's going to be an interesting year next year because there are six girls who won't play (if Clement returns)," she said.

According to several players, Clement's decision to focus his attention on developing the underclassmen divided the team both on the field and off. A few upperclassmen confronted Clement with what they felt was a growing problem a month into the season but claim he didn't respond.

The disgruntlement reached a boiling point prior to the team's final road trip of the season. Before boarding the team bus, Clement gave a pep talk that stressed team unity. When he was finished, Hopkins called him out.

"I was really upset," she said. "I said, 'We tried to fix this months ago,' and he was like, 'Everyone makes mistakes and I had to see it for myself.'

"It could have saved our season if it was taken care of beforehand."

SOU ended up missing the playoffs with a final record of 7-8-1. In Clement's two seasons at SOU, the Raiders are 13-18-2.

Weeks later, on Nov. 1, Sayre sent out an e-mail to players. It read: "There will be no organized soccer practice until further notice. We will give you more information as soon as we possibly can via e-mail or a scheduled meeting."

Those frustrated with Clement's decision-making say his treatment of the veterans hurt the team more than anything else. That was especially true for Vilarino, who teammates say was singled out.

Vilarino says her relationship with Clement disintegrated as the season wore on and claims that she was eventually ignored all together.

"It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life," Vilarino said. "I'm trying to overcome it, but it's over with me. I'm done. I will never be treated like that again."

Hopkins said it went beyond Clement's abrasive style.

"I definitely don't think anybody should be fired just for being a jerk because there are plenty of jerks who are good coaches," she said. "I just feel that the way he makes girls feel — especially 18- to 20-year-olds — he makes us feel so uncomfortable. You should be able to trust your coach, but you can't do that with Jon."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com