With the Menace Academy season right around the corner, we're introducing a series of stories about our coaches. In this first feature, we spotlight Tomas Boltnar, the Academy’s director of coaching.
Soccer ball and cleats in hand, five-year-old Tomas Boltnar hopped off the trolley bus. After a 15-minute ride, all that was between him and the soccer fields was a half-mile walk through Zlin – a city in the former Czechoslovakia.
During the summer months throughout his childhood, he made that journey alone twice a day.
It might seem like a lot of work for a 5 year old just to play soccer, but for Boltnar, now the Menace Academy’s director of coaching, it was all he knew.
“I was a full-time soccer player by that age,” Boltnar said. “You just didn’t know any different. I started playing, and I didn’t look back.”
Continuing his soccer career
Boltnar credits his success both on the field as a player and on the sidelines as a coach to his teammates, coaches and a competitive spirit during his youth soccer days. Without the passion those around him had for the game, he wouldn’t have wanted to continue playing and coaching.
The success on the field began with FC Zlin. It continued when Boltnar attended Iroquois High School in Erie, Penn. as a foreign exchange student for his senior year and scored 36 goals in 18 games for the Braves. And it persisted at California University in Pennsylvania, when he finished his four years with 180 points, 62 goals and 56 assists – records that still stand in the California stats book.
It was during his college career that Boltnar began to coach. He helped at summer camps with his college coach, Dennis Laskey.
“(Laskey) taught me a lot about coaching,” Boltnar said. “He was passionate about the game. I have always been a student of the game, so it feels good to give back to something that, over time, you get pretty good at.”
Boltnar and the Des Moines Menace
By the time Boltnar came to play for the Menace in 2002, he was set on coaching as well as playing. So for six years, Boltnar trained with the Menace first team, coached with Menace Academy and worked as a cost analyst for Kum & Go.
Boltnar played for the Menace for seven years. His jersey number, 21, is retired for a reason, as his award list seems to go on and on – 2002 Rookie of the Year, 2003 Premier Development League scoring champion, two PDL MVP awards (2002-2003), two All-PDL team honors (2005-2006) and three All-Conference honors (2005-2007). Boltnar was on the 2005 PDL championship team that won 6-5 on penalty kicks over the El Paso Patriots.
The forward’s statistics show why he was the recipient of all those awards: in 121 games played for the Menace, Boltnar had 92 goals, 59 assists and an 87-36-13 record. Seven of those goals came in the PDL playoffs.
Professional teams like the Cleveland Force and the Charleston Battery had interest in Boltnar, but he decided to keep coming back to the Menace each year because he could coach and have a full-time job while still playing soccer.
“It felt smarter to find a real job at the time,” Boltnar said. “I liked the fact that I could have a full-time job in my professional career while training. And at the same time, I thought the Menace was very professional in how they run the organization. I didn’t want to only chase the soccer side of stuff.”
After 2008, Boltnar decided to retire from playing soccer. Working full-time, coaching, starting a family and training with the PDL team was almost unmanageable.
“It just became a lot,” Boltnar said. “For the last couple of years, I felt like I was playing at 90 percent because I was so tired. I give the best I can to Kum & Go when I come to work here, and I give the best to the kids I coach. If I can’t do something 100 percent, it doesn’t feel right to keep doing it. Unfortunately playing was the one that had to go. It was the right decision, just not a fun one to make.”
From the field to the sidelines
The first season without playing for the Menace was hard for Boltnar. He found himself leaving Menace games early because he wanted to be playing, not watching, soccer.
“When you love the sport as much as I do, it’s hard to give it up,” he said. “I loved it and enjoyed it, so it was important for me to still be involved with the club because I can promote it and make it better for the kids in the program.”
With his playing days behind him, Boltnar could focus on his job, his family and coaching. He became the Director of Coaching for Menace Academy in 2013, and he currently coaches the 18U Academy boys, who have won five straight State Cup titles with Boltnar as the field general.
“Tomas has taught me a lot, not just soccer skills, but life skills,” Julius Cooper, a member of the 18U Menace Academy team, said. “He’s a great coach because he really, truly cares about his players. He wants to make sure they’re doing well in school, that they’re healthy, both mentally and physically. He just cares, and that makes us want to do our best for him, every time we step onto the field.
More than the game
For Boltnar, coaching soccer is about more than teaching the game. He hopes he can instill core values – similar to the Pillars of Character seen in education – in his players as well as technical skills.
“It’s not about just getting a player into a Division-I school,” Boltnar said. “It’s about coaching all different types of players, and helping each one achieve what they want to achieve. Everyone has a different level to reach, and hopefully we can help them with that. And hopefully along the way we can teach them the other values that the game produces – respect, caring, fairness, all that – and not just about winning a game.
“We don’t want to be the biggest, we want to be the best. The best being we want to attract those who are super passionate towards the game, which makes it more fun for everyone involved. They give us their best they can, and along the way hopefully we can teach them more than just soccer.”
The diversity Menace Academy boasts is what Boltnar enjoys the most about being with the Academy. With the scholarships and financial assistance the Academy provides, any player who has the ability to play can.
And Boltnar enjoys being there to watch it happen.
“I love helping the players get to where they want to go,” he said. “I’m there for support, and I love that role. As long as the player cares and they’re willing to put the effort in, I’ll spend all the time in the world with them. I love seeing them grow and improve, not just as players but as people and as a team. To me, that’s what it’s about.”
Born: May 4, 1979 in Zlin, Czechoslovakia
Wife: Jessica Boltnar
Children: Son Dominic (11); daughters Stella (8) and Daisy (2)
Education: California University of Pennsylvania (Bachelor’s in International Business and Economics and Master’s in Business Administration)
This story by Anne Rogers was posted June 27, 2017.