Excerpt — The Challenge
The year before Miller’s arrival, Pingry’s schedule reflected its prep-school identity, with opponents like Poly Prep, Rutgers Prep, Bordentown Military Academy, Haverford, George School, Staten Island Academy and Riverdale. Pingry would often measure the success of its season against Blair Academy. But winning repeated prep school championships would mean beating boarding schools like Peddie, Hun and Lawrenceville, whose teams were stocked with post graduates, often All-County and All-State players from the previous year, as well as with foreign students who had grown up playing soccer.
Accomplishing that goal against the large Group III and IV Union County public schools was an even more daunting challenge. And it wasn’t just the disparity in the size of the schools Pingry competed against. Pingry was located in one of the richest areas of the country in terms of high-level soccer.
In the mid-1800’s, the Clark Thread Company from Scotland opened plants in Kearny and Newark, .importing hundreds of workers and their families to serve in the factories. The ensuing decades witnessed the opening of the silk mills in Patterson and the rapid growth of industrialized areas throughout Hudson, Union and Essex Counties. By the late 1920’s and 1930’s, soccer clubs representing the huge influx of working class immigrant families had spread throughout New Jersey’s industrial cities and neighborhoods: Scots and Irish in Kearny, Harrison and Paterson, Portuguese and Ukranians in Newark’s Ironbound district, Germans and Italians in Union, Hungarians in New Brunswick and Spaniards in Bayonne. These clubs evolved into semi-pro soccer leagues such as The American Soccer League, The German American League, The Schaefer League and the Italian American League, whose players stunned the soccer world by beating England in the 1950’s World Cup.
Out of gritty dirt fields like Farchers’ Grove in Union, the Gunnell Oval in Kearny, Schutzenpark in North Bergen, Hinchcliff Stadium in Paterson, Passaic Sportfreunde Field in Wayne, and the famous old fields on Delancy Street and Ironbound Stadium in Newark, came not only the gifted, superbly skilled players like the United States’ National Team stars of the 1990s and mid-2000s such Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Greg Berhalter and Claudio Reyna, but also the All-County high school players from Thomas Jefferson in Elizabeth, Linden, Union and Edison Tech. They played a different game than American kids.
And the challenge Pingry teams faced wasn’t just from the descendants of America’s earlier immigrants. Through the 1960’s, local high school soccer teams were fueled by a steady influx of players whose families had recently arrived in New Jersey. If you look at the All-County and All-State Teams in the 1960’s, you see names like Kelley, Fiorillo, Porchetta, Russo, Periera, Schiesswohl, Jurczak, Barroquiero, Tsimanides, Dziadosz, Theofilos and Majkut. These players were skilled soccer players with deep roots into the rich heritage of countries like Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece and Argentina. The instinctive sense of and love for the game was in their blood. They defined the extraordinary level of excellence Miller had to help Pingry players achieve in order to win county championships.
Like a long-distance runner relentlessly, inexorably picking off competitors ahead of him to cross the finish line in first place, Miller’s teams worked their way through the Prep School competition in the 1960s, relegating Blair and Peddie to also-rans and finally and permanently taking the measure of Hun. That left the reigning pace-setter Lawrenceville, winner of 12 of the past 16 Prep School Championships, so loaded with post graduate talent that Pingry would never have dreamed of competing against them before Miller’s arrival. Pingry’s first meeting with Lawrenceville in 1963 inaugurated a bitter, but successful rivalry with Lawrenceville that would last for more than another quarter century.
Becoming Union County Champions posed a more basic challenge. In 1964 and 1965, Pingry went undefeated against the top Union County teams, but watched teams they had beaten be awarded the championship based on points for wins and losses – and Pingry couldn’t get enough public schools on the schedule to qualify. Miller remembers thinking “What do we have to do to win a championship!”
The following year, working with equally visionary high school coaches like Frank Severage of Clark, Frank Chirichillo of Edison Tech, Herb Kassel of Jefferson and Jim Jesky of Union, Miller took the initiative to petition the state to establish a Union County Tournament. Convincing the more conservative athletic directors in Union County on the value of innovative change turned out to be a struggle. Miller was successful finally in leveraging the example of the county basketball tournament – since it worked well in that sport, why not give soccer the same opportunity. Miller and his fellow coaches got approval initially for a four-team post-season tournament, but Miller realized that too narrow a field might still leave good Pingry teams out of consideration, so he fought, and won the battle to expand the tournament to eight teams.
Building the Sport
Miller’s leadership then expanded to embrace the entire state when he was instrumental in helping create the New Jersey Soccer Coaches Association in 1968 and heading up their committee charged with formally ranking the top 20 teams in New Jersey each week and guiding the selection of players to All State and All Group Teams.
Looking back, Miller recalls, “In the early 1960’s, high school soccer was still largely an ethnic thing limited to a few schools. I believed soccer had a much greater potential value throughout New Jersey as a competitive sport. Done the right way and for the right reasons, soccer – all sports, actually − could offer kids invaluable experiences and lessons they would draw on the rest of their lives. So we needed to find ways tomake soccer attractive, get kids interested, and help schools build programs. The tournaments and Coaches Asssociation were ways to achieve that goal. When we started instituting clinics to upgrade the quality of coaching, soccer took off. In retrospect, what we did in Union County in the 1960’s with soccer really opened a lot of doors for other emerging sports like hockey and lacrosse, and just as important, for girls’ competitive athletics a few years later.”
In September 1959, a young, incredibly intense, and completely unproven rookie coach stood at the first day of practice looking at senior-dominated team he didn’t know, taking in their curiosity − and skepticism. He must have wondered, “Can they do it?” – and more importantly, “Can I do it?”
Miller got his answer: his first decade ended with one unofficial and five official Prep School Championships. The goal of winning the Union County Tournament he had created, however, frustratingly eluded Pingry through the 1960’s. That would change, in dramatic fashion, starting in 1970.