Pioneers on the move

“Jeff has got­ten bet­ter every year… He comes out here and plays hard. He’s a smart stu­dent and a hard-work­ing ath­lete.” —Frank­ford boss Rob Shelton speaks highly of seni­or Jeff Marc.

The Frank­ford High School soc­cer pro­gram has be­come a story of growth over the past few years. 

It didn’t hap­pen overnight, but, slowly and surely, the Pi­on­eers have evolved in­to a qual­ity crew of com­pet­it­ors. They’ve moved up to the Phil­adelphia Pub­lic League A Di­vi­sion this sea­son, and now face the top squads in the area.

“This year, I prob­ably am start­ing el­ev­en of the most tal­en­ted play­ers I’ve had since I’ve been coach­ing,” said Rob Shelton, now in his fifth sea­son as Frank­ford’s head coach. “The kids are en­thu­si­ast­ic and ded­ic­ated. We’re in good shape to com­pete.”

And at the fore­front of their suc­cess — es­pe­cially de­fens­ively — is Jeff Marc. The seni­or back has been a varsity play­er for the Pi­on­eers for three sea­sons. 

A nat­ive of Haiti, he’d nev­er played or­gan­ized soc­cer un­til team­ing up with the Pi­on­eers. These days he’s con­sidered among the top de­fend­ers in North­east Phil­adelphia and has re­ceived at­ten­tion from some col­lege pro­grams.

“Jeff has got­ten bet­ter every year. I had him in class for two years and on the field,” said Shelton, also a math­em­at­ics teach­er at Frank­ford High. “He comes out here and plays hard. He’s a smart stu­dent and a hard-work­ing ath­lete. He’s a good kid.”

Marc, whose fa­vor­ite sub­ject is sci­ence, plans to study en­gin­eer­ing at col­lege next year. He also plays for Frank­ford’s ten­nis team in the spring, but his true love is soc­cer. 

“I love to play. I want to move on and play well in col­lege,” said Marc, 17. “I try to al­ways do my best. I def­in­itely want to make it to the play­offs.” 

The Pi­on­eers have come a long way on the pitch, es­pe­cially when you con­sider that, just two sea­sons ago, the pro­gram was al­most scrapped be­cause there wer­en’t enough play­ers to field a team. A full roster must have 12 ath­letes — 11 starters and one sub­sti­tute. Only sev­en kids showed up at the start of the 2009 sea­son. 

That mat­ter of num­bers no longer is an is­sue. 

Now, Frank­ford has a full roster of 19 play­ers, in­clud­ing re­turn­ing starters with varsity ex­per­i­ence. Seni­or Eric Salguero and ju­ni­or Mustafa Alghazza­wi are spear­head­ing the squad’s sol­id of­fense, with Marc hold­ing down the de­fense. 

The Pi­on­eers also have a few rook­ies on the pitch, in­clud­ing three who have mi­grated from the Pub­lic League cham­pi­on base­ball team — Au­gusto Or­tega, Omar Cruz and Hec­tor Cerda. 

“This is the first year that they ever played soc­cer,” ex­plained Shelton. “They’re great ath­letes and they know what it’s like to be on a cham­pi­on­ship team. They bring that en­ergy and hustle to the team.”

Frank­ford’s switch to the highly com­pet­it­ive A Di­vi­sion hasn’t been ex­actly smooth — they have four losses and no wins thus far — but, ac­cord­ing to Shelton, the team is con­tinu­ing to im­prove. 

They suffered bru­tal losses at the hands of Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, 6-2, and George Wash­ing­ton, 6-1, dur­ing the first week of the sea­son. They’ve since battled Prep Charter in a 3-2 loss on Sept. 12 and then fell to de­fend­ing Pub­lic League cham­pi­on Bartram, 4-3, on Sept. 14. 

“I would have loved to see them win this game, but just to see their cha­risma and see them hanging in there and work­ing each and every game is great,” Shelton said after last week’s match against Bartram. “I am very happy with their per­form­ance. This is their first year in the A Di­vi­sion. We star­ted off rough, but this is a tough team — Bartram won the cham­pi­on­ship last year — and we played them well.”

Frank­ford’s soc­cer pro­gram hasn’t seen a cham­pi­on­ship game since 2001, and it hasn’t claimed a title since 1996. The Pi­on­eers dom­in­ated the Pub­lic League for most of the 1980s and ’90s but they have since slipped out of the spot­light. 

In all, Frank­ford has 28 Pub­lic League cham­pi­on­ship crowns — in­clud­ing 10 that were won con­sec­ut­ively from 1986 to ’96. The Pi­on­eers have claimed sev­en city cham­pi­on­ship titles as well, an ex­cep­tion­al feat con­sid­er­ing that no city title games were played from 1980 to 2007. 

Now they’re hop­ing to re­build that tra­di­tion. 

“We’re play­ing well. We’ve im­proved a lot since we star­ted,” said Marc. “In the first few games, we wer­en’t very good. Now we’re work­ing and get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter every day.” ••

Ed­it­or Melissa Yerkov can be reached at my­

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