Same bloodline. Different sidelines.
As coaches of two successful squads, the brothers knew it was only a matter of time before their teams faced off in a pivotal playoff game, their closeness tested by their desire to win a championship.
A soccer championship.
“It’s hard on us, it’s hard on our parents,” recounts Mike Sutcliffe, coach of Moorestown (N.J.) High School’s boys’ soccer team. “We both work really hard and we support each other. We don’t want either team to ever lose. A lot of people make a big deal about it and think we talk trash but it’s a difficult situation for us.”
As NFL coaches John and Jim Harbaugh prepare their teams for a brotherly battle of Super Bowl proportions, in what some have called the “Harbowl” or “Superbaugh,” Moorestown brothers Wayne and Mike Sutcliffe have faced a familiar scenario. Twice.
In 2009 and again in last November’s Group 3 state semifinals, Wayne’s Princeton High School dashed Moorestown’s playoff dreams, defeating the Quakers 1-0 and 2-0, respectively.
The facts and stats are still fresh for Mike, possibly because he heard so much from so many leading up to his sibling square-off.
“You start to get phone calls and read things in the paper and then by the time the game happens, there’s a lot of focus on it,” he says.
Compared to Super Bowl XLVII, however, that focus is the equivalent of over-the-counter reading glasses; the biggest show on turf is expected to draw roughly 100 million viewers.
The attention is not lost on the Harbaughs, who have reportedly ceased verbal communication to one another prior to Sunday’s contest, agreeing to only exchange text messages.
Dr. Joel Fish, director of The Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia, says competitiveness among kin starts early.
“Growing up, siblings compete against each other all the time,” says Fish, who has worked with the city’s four major professional teams. “… It’s the biggest factor in deciding how they compete growing up, or in the Super Bowl.”
It’s easy to lose focus of family on the field, Wayne says.
“When you’re in the moment, it’s inconsequential,” Wayne says. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against.”
Not wanting to take sides, their parents took both in the 2009 contest.
“They watched half the game on one side and half the game on the other side,” Wayne says with a laugh.
However, the 2012 sequel proved too stressful for the parents to attend.
Mike doesn’t blame them.
“I just can’t explain how uncomfortable it is,” Mike says. “The first time I was like, ‘We’ll see what happens,’ but this time I was dreading it.”
Stress is expected when squaring off against a sibling, Fish says.
“I would approach it like it’s the biggest game of my career,” Fish says. “I’m not one who thinks that every game should end in a tie.”
Despite being down 2-0 to his older brother in head-to-head duels, Mike says no subject is out of bounds at family parties.
Since they each have led their teams to several championships in their collective 40 years of coaching, the Sutcliffes can — and do — talk soccer and championships.
“If you’re not there for one year,” Wayne says of the championship round, “it doesn’t put a negative light on the past two decades.”
But the games do change the dynamic of the relationship, Wayne says.
“It depends on your relationship with your brothers,” says Wayne, a Moorestown resident. “Some brothers are really competitive, and my brother and I are too, but when it comes to coaching soccer, we’re very supportive of each other.”
Competition is healthy as long as there is a lining of mutual respect, Fish says.
“This is what I would say to (dueling siblings),” Fish says. “Play by the rules, respect each other and keep it in perspective.
“It’s the biggest game of your life, but it’s still only a game.”
Win or lose, the Sutcliffes have each other’s back.
After Princeton lost a controversial contest to Timber Creek Regional High School in the 2011 playoffs, Moorestown restored honor to the Sutcliffe family by bouncing the Sicklerville school from the postseason in November.
And in the 2009 Group 3 state championship, Princeton defeated Millburn High School, which eliminated Moorestown the year prior.
“It was a little bit of family redemption there,” Mike notes.
Wayne adds: “It’s always nice when there’s a little vindication. Soccer is a funny game in that way.”
But sometimes it’s more fun to play the voyeur. Wayne and Mike plan on doing just that Sunday evening for the Super Bowl, and possibly together.
“I might be watching it with Mike and his family,” Wayne says.
Though he says he treated each of his brotherly bouts as “just a regular game,” Mike is not as stoic as a spectator, admitting the Harbaugh factor ups the intrigue.
“Maybe a little bit,” Mike Sutcliffe says. “I know how they feel.”