Willingboro's years as soccer hotbed to be played again

Nick Juengert (right), a midfielder with Willingboro, in a photo from the 1980 yearbook. "There are some people I haven't seen in years," he said of Saturday's alumni game. "This is really important to me."
Nick Juengert (right), a midfielder with Willingboro, in a photo from the 1980 yearbook. "There are some people I haven't seen in years," he said of Saturday's alumni game. "This is really important to me."
Posted: May 17, 2014

High school memories typically remain just that: memories.

But high school soccer was once so hot, thrilling, and good in Willingboro that the memory of it never quite cooled for those of a certain age.

So when a former player posted a provocative question on Facebook a few months ago, the town took notice.

"If you could field soccer teams comprised of the best players ever from Kennedy High School and Willingboro High School," Denver physician Phil Mitchell asked, "who would they be, and who would win the game?"

Mitchell's question grew into much more than a sports-bar quarrel.

On Saturday, dozens of former players from as far as California, Washington, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, and Colorado - and many more from across New Jersey - will don the jerseys of the Willingboro Chimeras and the bygone Kennedy Gryphons for an alumni match that should rekindle their old rivalry, renew faded friendships, and create memories to last a lifetime.

"I've had some devastating injuries: broken bones and reconstructed legs. But I'm playing," said New Jersey State Trooper John Conners, a star fullback at Kennedy who graduated in 1984.

"At 48, I don't know how good I'll be," said Conners, the school's first freshman to play varsity soccer, "but just to be out there again with all these guys - I have to do it."

The game, which is free and open to the public, starts 1 p.m. at Carl Lewis Stadium.

A souvenir sale opens at the stadium at 11 a.m., with warmups and a "family-friendly" soccer match beginning at noon. Proceeds from the event will go to the nonprofit youth Willingboro Soccer Club, according to organizers.

Saturday's teams will be made up of star players and coaches from 1972 to 1992. So far, the reunion has drawn about 35 from Willingboro High and about 25 from Kennedy, which was merged into Willingboro High in 1990.

"The soccer [in Willingboro] was really great in the '70s and early '80s," said Nick Juengert, a 1980 graduate of Willingboro High, where he played midfield. He is now head coach of women's soccer at Richard Stockton College.

"But it was the friendships that really mattered, and there are some people I haven't seen in years. This is really important to me."

The friendships are important, too, to Ray Goon. Head coach of women's soccer at Drexel University for the last 18 years, he is a former captain of Rutgers University's men's soccer team, and a 1981 graduate of Willingboro High.

"Obviously, soccer is a big part of my life," Goon said last week. "I've always said that as large as the world is, soccer makes it smaller; there's people you know through the game. So this is bringing me back. It's an opportunity to see people from the past."

Will he be playing Saturday?

"It depends on what you mean by 'playing,' " he said, and laughed. "I mean, I'm 52. But I'll give it a go."

Neither school ever won a state soccer championship.

But long before soccer became the immensely popular youth sport it is today in the United States, Willingboro embraced the sport and produced a remarkable number of soccer professionals.

These included college coaches Goon and Juengert, and such top players as Cleve Lewis, who after Willingboro High was an All-American at Brandeis University and MVP of its national championship victory in 1976. Another star was Tony Bellinger, drafted by the Dallas Tornado immediately after graduating from Kennedy in 1977.

"Oh, my God, it was huge back then," said Vicki Essex, a 1986 Kennedy graduate whose women's team won the first South Jersey coaches' championships in 1984 and 1985.

Willingboro "was the hotbed of soccer in all of South Jersey," said Essex, a co-organizer of Saturday's game and a teacher at Willingboro High.

Most of the town's soccer alumni credit the Willingboro Soccer Club, founded in 1968, for helping to promote the sport among the town's youth.

They also sing the praises of the two men who coached boys' soccer during its golden age: Kennedy's Charlie Duccilli and Willingboro's Jack Mulder.

"These guys had tremendous insight into the game," said Conners, who followed Duccilli from Kennedy to Rutgers.

Juengert agreed. "It started with great coaching. Charlie and Jack knew the game," he said, "and they knew how to teach it."

Duccilli coached boys' soccer at Kennedy from 1970 to 1981 before leaving for Rutgers, where he started the women's Division I soccer program and led it for 15 years. He also played for the short-lived Philadelphia Atoms, and coached the New York Power, a women's professional team.

"I did have a lot of experience as a [professional] player," Duccilli said this week. "I just applied it to the high school level, and the boys bought into it."

Now coach of a youth soccer training camp in Cape May, he credits the Willingboro Soccer Club with molding young players while in elementary and middle school. "By the time I got them, they were intent on doing great things," he said. "I worked them very hard, they responded, and we started beating teams around the state."

Kennedy was rated tops in New Jersey 1976, he said, the year it went undefeated and untied in its regular season, only to lose by one goal in the semifinals of the state championship tournament.

"I've achieved a lot of success coaching," said Duccilli, who with Mulder will reprise their high school roles Saturday, "but I never had such a rewarding experience as I did the first years coaching high school."

His strategy for the big game? "It's all about getting everybody out there with their boots on and having some friendly competition," he said.

That sounds fine to Jerry Cote, who played for Duccilli in the 1970s and helped organize Saturday's reunion.

"It doesn't matter who wins," said Cote, who coaches a youth team in Marlton.

"We're getting all these people who played from 1972 to 1992, and all these people who'll be in the stands, here to remember something that was really special when we were kids," he said.

"We've already won."


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