By Rudi Gesch, EC Varsity Soccer Coach.
Speak the truth in love: it’s Time!
The Bible tells us to speak the truth in love. The Truth/Love conversation is a hard one. How are we fully honest, yet fully loving? It’s a difficult balance.
I’m the boys varsity soccer coach at EC. And in this blog post for Campaign 125, I’m going to try to walk that difficult balance between truth and love. So here it goes, Eastern Christian School. Time for some tough truth: Our outdoor athletic facilities stink. They’re just bad. I love EC. I love the athletics programs, I love the athletes, I love the athletic director, I love our fans, I love community nights, I love cheering on our teams… but the outdoor athletic facilities are just plain sub-standard. They fit into one of two categories: they have fallen woefully behind. Or worse- they don’t even exist.
Our Facilities have fallen woefully behind (Soccer):
For starters, a large portion of the soccer field is on the infield of a baseball diamond. The dirt (or mud!) is a totally different playing surface than the grass. There are areas on the field where players have to pass from grass to dirt to grass before it gets to his teammate. Plus, the infield has a 1 inch lip from dirt to grass that is an ankle-rolling machine. The field is way too narrow for the modern game. The drainage consists of whatever was in the soil below it when we planted grass. The field is uneven and has many holes in it. There are no fan-friendly areas to enjoy the games from, so we farm out community nights to the North Haledon Rec field.
As a coach, this means that I literally adjust my game plan to try to accommodate for our facilities. When we play at opponent’s modern facilities in our conference, they practice every day on a wide field that offers much lower injury threats, a consistent playing surface, and a wide space to possess the ball.
How have we fallen behind? Let me take you on a walk through soccer history in the US. While this is a relatively deep dive, I believe the point will be worth it in the end to help the EC community understand where we currently stand:
Soccer’s evolution in the United States has been one in three eras:
- Emerging Era (pre-60’s-70’s) US is a fledgling soccer nation. There are pockets of interest around the nation (NJ is one of them!) but there is very limited resources around coaching, facilities, improved play, what even “good team play” means.
- A typical high school soccer team in this era had 2-3 players who knew what they were doing and surrounded them with good athletes and hoped for the best.
- A typical high school soccer facility in this era was whatever worked. The closest field of uninterrupted grass. Goals and fields are different sizes on different facilities as little to no standardization exists within high school athletics.
- Growing Era (80’s and 90’s) Soccer starts to take root. Millions of kids play soccer. It passes baseball as the #1 childhood participation sport. An entire generation (mine!) grows up with the beautiful game. Private club programs are formed. The US hosts the 1994 World Cup. Major League Soccer is born. We knew we loved soccer, but didn’t quite know the X’s and O’s yet. At least not in large numbers.
- A typical high school soccer team in this era had big, strong, tall, athletic players that ran around like crazy looking to play “route 1” bash-ball. Defenders “boot the ball” out of trouble, while more skilled midfielders and forwards invent ways to finish off plays with goals.
- A typical high school soccer facility in this era is starting to become more standardized. Rules on field and goal dimensions are established. Turf fields make their first appearance at some established programs.
- Big Time Era (2000’s) Soccer goes mainstream. Soccer is now a major US sport. MLS attendance per game outranks the NBA and NHL. Soccer specific stadiums are built all across the country. High School athletes have grown up in club soccer under the direction of quality coaching.
- A successful high school team in this era needs 11 “total football” players. That means you a quick, possession-based program that can “play from the back.” On-the ball skill, touch, and creativity are valued and rewarded. Year-round club soccer teams mean that on-field skills are amazing. “Bash ball” teams quickly get “tika-taka’d” to death. The best high school programs have partnerships with local clubs and the symbiotic programs share the same facilities year round.
- A typical high school soccer facility is a turf field frequently partnered with high school football and/or LaCrosse field. This directly impacts play. A turf field (or a well maintained/drained grass field) offers consistent bounces, no holes in the field, the ability to knock the ball around and possess. A team that practices every day on a field like this has a major leg up on competition that practices every day on a field where a perfect pass can take a 45 degree turn for no real reason.
So, how have we fallen behind? The present state of our facilities really matches the emerging or growth eras. Which was fine in that era, but the sport has moved past that time. We’re now in the “Big time” era, but EC facilities are stuck in the past. Other than Manchester, every one of our NJIC opponents has a modern era field. At home, our players are afraid to possess the ball from the back because a very good pass might simply “hit a rough spot” and miss it’s target. Or die in a mud spot. In a sport where there isn’t much scoring, a free breakaway for an opposing forward might literally be the difference between winning and losing. It’s easier just to “boot the ball forward” and bash for a goal. That’s 80’s/90’s era soccer approach and doesn’t produce success today. Our field is also the narrowest (save Manchester) in our conference. Narrow means less space. Less space to posses the ball and a higher likelihood of contact. The best strategy on our home field is from the 80’s and 90’s “Growth” era of the sport: bash the ball forward, work to get a deep throw-in (Skinny field! Long throws are a great weapon!) and smash bodies in the box until the ball goes into the net. Simply put, the best strategy on our home field is an era behind. The successful strategies that we employ at home are the exact opposite of what is successful on every other field in our conference (again, save Manchester). At this point, I hope you can see how our facility is directly limiting the potential growth of our program. The proof is in the results:
- 2015 Varsity Team Record: 9-11. We were 7-3 at home. We were 2-8 on the road. One of those road wins was at Manchester whose field, like ours is an era behind. So we know how to win at home, but have no clue how to win on the road. Which makes sense- those teams practice on their facilities every day. So every day, EC is practicing on a facility that promotes an outdated strategy. And every day our opponents are practicing on better facilities where a different game is played. When we visit those schools, we can’t adjust. And we don’t win.
- State championships at EC: ‘69, ‘72, ‘74, ‘76,‘80. EC legitimately has one of the most storied and accomplished men’s soccer programs in the state of New Jersey. There is, however an obvious problem: While there was a dominance in the “emerging” era of soccer, we haven’t had a state championship since the Reagan administration. Janet Jackson comes to mind: “What have you done for me lately?” Clearly the program has stalled, and a big piece of this is the facility. It’s time to wake up this sleeping giant! We have a great program with a proud history. It’s time to reclaim some of that tradition of winning. And that will require an investment in facilities.
Our Facilities don’t exist (Track/Lacrosse)
As bad as it is for the soccer program, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a Lacrosse coach or Track coach at EC. We literally have no facilities for these programs. We’ve demonstrated how the soccer facilities have fallen behind… but at least we have facilities for this program!
The EC LAX program started in 2012. Since it’s inception, we’ve been on a permanent road trip. We’ve never played a home game. Our teams don’t even have home jerseys! The difficulty of renting a lacrosse space is burden for our athletic office and creates logistical issues for this new program.
The EC Track program, run terrifically under difficult circumstances by coach Joel Apol is in a tough spot. This is perhaps the program that best demonstrates the gap between current program success and current facility failure. The girls program has one sectional championships in recent years: 2010, 2011, and 2014. The ’14 team also won the state championship!
Track practice consists of various “band aid” solutions from a facility stand-point. Our High School campus is built into the side of a hill which means there are precious few spots of remotely even terrain. Hurdles for sprints are set up in parking lots with uneven terrain and hard asphalt. The hard surface produces a higher incidence of shin splints and other “repeat usage” injuries among our track program. We’ve obviously never hosted a home track meet either.
Coach Gesch Pep Talk: The time is now!
So, if our outdoor athletic facilities are either substandard or non-existent, why should we invest in these programs? Why Campaign 125? Why now? That’s an easy answer- Because that’s what we claim that we do. We tell our students (and our student athletes!) to strive for excellence. That phrase is both an articulated core value of EC and an athletic pillar. We tell our student athletes to strive for excellence, but then we go out and “make due” with sub standard (non-excellent!) facilities. It’s time to match the program to the mission. And, after decades of operation under these circumstances, the time is now. Come on, EC community- the time is now! Let’s do this! Eagles on three! 1-2-3 EAGLES!