The 1970s – Union County Dominance

Miller as a player

Miller as a player

Throughout his career as a player, from his sophomore year at Pingry through Springfield College and his years playing semi-pro soccer with the Westfield Lions, Miller had followed a simple, fundamental principle: to win consistently against top competition you have to continuously improve your skills and understanding of the game. The best way to do that is by practicing and competing against players who are better than you. Each season, Miller used pre-season games to set players’ expectations for the level of soccer they needed to reach. Opponents included not only top-rated high school teams not on Pingry’s schedule, but also the Penn Freshman team.

Miller’s successful efforts in the 1960s to grow the sport of high school soccer in New Jersey had the inevitable consequence of increasing the caliber of play of the teams Pingry needed to beat to win championships. That meant finding ways to continuously lift the level of the game for Pingry players. Miller needed not just dedicated, tough, hard-working athletes who would never quit; he needed soccer players. But you can’t develop a soccer player in a couple of weeks of pre-season practice and a 12-week season. Pingry’s rise to become the dominant soccer team in Union County was forged by the commitment of the players to work at their game during the off season.

Winter Soccer

But competing against your teammates wasn’t enough. In order for them to not only play the game at a higher level but actually feel the game of soccer, Miller knew his kids needed to develop against the best soccer talent in New Jersey. That meant winter soccer on the frozen field of Farcher’s Grove in Union and the other tough fields of the German-American Soccer League. Art and Robbie Kurz’s father was a member of the Elizabeth Sport Club and a sponsor of their semi-pro team, which would change its name in 1982 to the Union Lancers. His sons had played at Farcher’s Grove in the youth programs since they could first kick a soccer ball. He helped Miller, starting in the mid-1960s, get his best kids onto league teams – the first prep school coach in New Jersey to start formally developing players out of season. Miller’s model was the public school stars who played soccer year-round because that’s just what they did – they were soccer players.

Farcher’s Grove

Sean O’Donnell ’75, who captained the 1974 team and went on to star at the University of Pennsylvania, began playing at Farcher’s Grove with his buddies as a little kid, using empty beer kegs from Farcher’s bar for goals. “There was nothing even close to fancy about Farcher’s,” Sean remembers. “The dirt field was bounded on one side by the train tracks and on the other by the river, with the PSE&G substation in the rear. The far side of the field was fenced in – right next to the field. If you overran the touch line you smashed right into the chain link fence. On the other side by the clubhouse they had raised wooden bleachers, but people didn’t usually sit there. They lined the field. You learned to be really careful when you were playing the ball next to the other team’s fans. If you lofted the ball over the 20-foot-high fence at one end, it could bounce through the Sunoco station next door and start rolling downhill on the street. We got a lot of conditioning just sprinting after balls to keep them from getting run over in the traffic. And the ‘locker room,’ if you can call it that, was a cinder block building that hadn’t been painted – or cleaned – for decades. The shower room had three shower heads…and lots of mold. Getting to the bottom of it would have been like an architectural dig.”

Christopher Merrill’s book The Grass of Another Country is a fascinating history of the growth of soccer in New Jersey and the United States leading up to the 1990 World Cup – and a must-read for fans of both the U.S. Men’s National Team and Pingry soccer. In it, he relates his own experiences playing at Farcher’s when he was Sean’s Pingry teammate. “I remembered training here under the lights in midwinter: how the cleat marks, divots, and holes in the mud would freeze until the field was harder and rougher than a cobblestone street. Good players like Sean learned to run with short strides, moving their feet constantly, hoping not to turn an ankle. They learned to trap the ball with a minimum of effort, dribble it close to their feet so that it would not get away from them, adapt instantly to balls ricocheting off the ground, deliver to their teammates quick, accurate passes, and pray for the best.” How rough was the dirt field at Farcher’s? Sean’s brother Brian O’Donnell remembers watching the famed Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, with their galaxy of foreign stars like Pelé, Giorgio Chingalia, and Franz Beckenbauer, play an exhibition at Farcher’s. Pelé handled the field just fine, but Beckenbauer spent an entire frustrating game chasing after balls than bounced crazily away from him.

Sean O’Donnell’s family had sacrificed to enable him to attend Pingry as a sophomore, so Miller offered to help by driving Sean to and from school each day, making the trip down the mountain from Short Hills to pick up Sean outside the Farcher’s Grove soccer field. They didn’t talk much on those trips, Sean remembers. Miller was, after all, his coach, and Sean was a teenage kid with a lot of things on his mind – including trying to figure out how he was going to pass that morning’s first-period test. On their ride home, Sean was often thinking back to that afternoon’s grueling practice: “Can I ever please this guy?” What does stand out for Sean, however, was how they entered school each morning. Miller would lead the way up the steps, with Sean a few steps behind, then open one of the huge blue doors in the Pingry portico, stand aside, and let Sean enter first. Invariably. “I don’t think it was a conscious decision on Miller’s part at all,” Sean says. “He was just instinctively being who he is. But the message he sent me couldn’t have been clearer: ‘I care about you; I respect you.’ I can’t tell you how much that meant to a kid trying to figure out how to become a man.”

Epilogue

Another County Title

Another County Title

The payoff for this sacrifice and effort is now a matter of the record books: Pingry won its first Union County championship when the undefeated 1970 team tied defending champion Scotch Plains 0-0 after two overtime periods in the final, and the school went on to win or share successive titles from 1974 through 1977 and again in 1983. The teams of the 1960s included three undefeated squads and won five Prep School Championships and one Union County championship, scoring a total of 327 goals over the decade. The payoff for the commitment the players of the 1970s made to developing their skills off-season was a stunning increase in offensive fireworks. All but two teams in this decade totaled more than 40 goals for the season, and six scored more than 50, with the 1978 team setting a new record of 59 goals in a 17-game season.

Miller was named Coach of the Year by the New Jersey College and High School Soccer Officials Association for the 1972 season and the Central New Jersey Coach of the Year in 1975. To cap an extraordinary decade, Miller was selected as Soccer Coach of the 1970s for the Star Ledger’s “Team of the Century.”

Grass in the mid-1970s couldn’t grow on Farcher’s field, but something else did: Pingry’s 1970s dominance as Union County champions.

 

 

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