With summer training camp less than a week away, John Dunlop is so fired up for the start of the 2014 soccer season that you’d half expect him to take the field with his players.
And though there will be many spots to be filled on the field, the 11th-year Father Judge head soccer coach will likely not be called into action. That said, he’s staying loose anyway.
“I’m ecstatic … just so excited,” Dunlop said during a Monday afternoon interview after conducting a soccer clinic at Phil-Mont Christian Academy. “I’ve been working my rear end off in the gym five days a week knowing that I’ll have to do more this year, coaching-wise. I’m going into camp like I’ll be playing. I’m hitting the weights, riding the bike, running … I want to let the players know that I’ll be their leader and we’re going to develop things all over again. It’s a cool situation to be in going forward.”
Dunlop is young at heart, and his feisty attitude is likely to reflect his roster when the Crusaders open up the 2014 season on Aug. 29 against non-league opponent Springfield. Judge posted a 20-2 record in 2013, winning the Catholic League and District XII Class AAA title games before bowing out in the first round of the state tournament.
That final defeat signaled the end of an era for Dunlop’s program, as the veteran coach graduated 14 seniors, many of whom were key standouts the last two or three seasons. The graduation crunch included captains Danny Sulpizio (goalie), Joey Malvestuto (defense) and midfielders Ryan Nork and Joey Hansen, both of whom scored scholarships to continue their soccer careers at La Salle University. Hansen, one of Judge’s most decorated soccer stars, was tabbed as an All-American after the storybook season, so replacing him, Nork, Sulpizio, Malvestuto and the 10 other seniors will be no easy task in the rough-and-tumble Catholic League. Despite an influx of youth and inexperience in 2014, the Crusaders will have a target squarely on their backs; as a result, the new group’s first major obstacle will be responding to the opposition’s early punches, which are likely to be fierce given that Judge dominated league play with brutish force in 2013.
Still, with all that being said, Dunlop isn’t panicking. If his enthusiasm is a smokescreen, then he’s doing a fantastic job masking it.
“Listen, there’s always peaks and valleys and the challenges of kids leaving and whatnot,” Dunlop said. “We’re going to break the young guys down and build them back up. From what I’ve seen so far during the summer, this group really likes each other. There’s a lot of spots open, and a lot of energy; these guys are gym rats, and it’s a different kind of feisty bunch.
“I’m pretty excited, because it feels new to me. I’ve been spoiled the last three years with a great bunch of boys. Now, it’s back to the sweat and hard work, and we’ll see if that pays off in camp.”
Despite the youthful group he has returning, Dunlop has reasons to be excited. For starters, the freshman and JV teams have also had inordinate amounts of success, so the soccer pipeline at the school is usually teeming with talent that’s just waiting for its varsity opportunity. Not only that, but many of these youngsters witnessed firsthand Judge’s magical run in 2013, either as varsity subs or spectators from the bench, always closeby to soak up the wisdom on what it takes to win that those 14 seniors dished out.
As a result, younger players started showing Dunlop something earlier on in their varsity tenures. For example, junior forward Cole Speiser saw a lot of playing time last season, as did sophomore Kevin Ceno, who became a postseason star for the Crusaders in 2013 when his game-winning goal over Archbishop Ryan sent Judge to the championship round. Billy McCarthy, Leo Villegas and Eric Trush are other returning names likely to see a more pronounced role in 2014.
“I’ve been very fortunate having players in this program who have been able to pass the torch down to the younger guys,” Dunlop said. “These guys love the program, and they want the younger guys to step up and continue where they left off. The seniors that go through this program really get something out of it and make sure there’s that snowball effect downward to the younger guys, which for me is a coach’s dream. The younger guys, it’s amazing what they learn from those who came before them … now it’s their opportunity, and I see their excitement.”
Dunlop says much more will be known about his personnel and the ways in which he’ll utilize his players once training camp starts. But the veteran coach made it clear that he was not deeming this year a rebuild; and why would he, especially after the Crusaders have won more Catholic League games than any other team over the last seven years? In that time, Judge has appeared in five championship games, bringing home three league titles. As Dunlop said, “Once they buy into the system, the belief in the system takes over.”
Dunlop offered no predictions, wins- and losses-wise, for 2014, but he did caution the rest of the league not to take his boys lightly, even if they are still a little rough around the edges at this point in time.
“We are going to be good coming out of camp, and we’re only going to get better,” Dunlop said. “We have a very good upside. I think other teams will be pleasantly surprised when these guys take the field. I haven’t been this excited going into a camp in several years, just because it feels new and fresh again. I’m jacked up, and so are the players.”
The main reason for Dunlop’s confidence in avoiding a severe drop-off is that he feels his returning and new players alike have no interest in tarnishing the legacy set by those who came before them. Not only were players like Nork and Hansen stars on the field, but they were stalwarts off it, too. Last year’s senior group were standouts in the classroom and were very involved extracurricularly, from student government to blood drives to community service projects.
If anything, these players set the bar incredibly high; and while that may be a tough task to live up to, Dunlop believes the values instilled in his players — by both parents at home and teachers, administrators and coaches at the school — will carry this youthful group further than some might expect.
“These guys have to understand, and I think that they do, that Judge is going to play teams who give us more respect because of previous teams’ successes,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of new faces, but we’ll be all right. These guys already have a sense of winning and an idea that we’re not well-liked on the field. My guys, they work hard at what they do on and off the field to put themselves in a position to win, and that’s not something that happens overnight.
“Our program across the board, from varsity to JV to the freshmen team, we win and we win the right way. What they learn at a young age is contagious. Now it’s time for them to write their new legacy, to make their own name. They appreciate the guys that came in front of them, but now it’s time for them to go down their own path. I think they’re looking forward to the challenge. Teams might take them lightly, but the more they are together, the better they’ll be. I really believe that, and I love their enthusiasm.” ••