After a life which has revolved around soccer, it’s tough for anything that happens on the field to surprise Carl Strong. But his Pequannock team managed to do that this fall.
The Panthers won 15 straight matches to start the season, an achievement even Strong admitted was “unheard of, really.” They also earned their first division title since 1980 – claiming the NJAC-Independence – and advanced to a Morris County Tournament semifinal for the first time since 2005.
Delbarton handed Pequannock its first loss, 4-1, in that semi – despite an early goal which Strong predicted – and sent the team into a bit of a tailspin. After ending the regular season with three straight defeats, the Panthers rebounded to blank Ramsey, 3-0, in the opening round of North 1 Group II. But their state run was also short lived, as Mountain Lakes upset the top seed, 1-0, in the second round.
Following Strong’s offensive philosophy, the Panthers outscored opponents 63 to 20, as new goalkeeper Garrett Hokr recorded seven shutouts. Three of Pequannock’s four losses were by a single goal.
“He sees things on the field no one else sees,” senior defender Tom Hansen said. “It helps us know what to do in the field, and helps motivate us.”
A former professional midfielder, Strong has high standards for his high school players. He reads English Premier League scores to the Panthers, and even listens to soccer via satellite radio in his car, according to striker Eric Steed – telling the high school players to model themselves after Barcelona midfielders Xavi and Andres Inesta, and other international superstars.
“It was a day-by-day process getting them to play together and play with confidence,” said Strong, the 2012 All Daily Record Boys Soccer Coach of the Year. “I knew what I had, but there were some pieces I had to fill in.”
One large piece was Steed, a former backup who led Pequannock with 22 goals and seven assists – third overall in Morris County. Hansen, too, rose to the occasion anchoring the back line and was named team MVP.
“I’m pretty intense about it,” Strong said. “That’s part of who I am. I’ve grown up to love the game.”
Though high school soccer “was basically your shop teacher taking over the team” when Strong was growing up in Annandale, Va., he joined a club team with international coaches at age 12. The Annandale Cavaliers stayed together for seven years, defeating Sparta of Chicago to win the U-19 McGuire Cup national championship when he was 18 – and spawning several pros, including Strong and Gary Etherington.
“They encouraged me, because they saw something in me, saw I had enough ability to play at the highest level,” Strong said. “That was a big goal of mine, to try and make it professionally.”
Strong played soccer at James Madison for two seasons before heading to Colorado in January of his sophomore year to try out for the North American Soccer League. He played for five NASL teams in seven years before the league folded in 1985, and he returned to Virginia to finish his education at George Mason. Carl Strong married Christine, earned his teaching degree, and coached girls soccer in Virginia for a few years. The Strongs relocated to Christine’s hometown of Mendham, and Carl began teaching health and physical education and coaching soccer at Pequannock. Even after 21 years, Strong confessed “it doesn’t seem like I’ve been here that long. It’s gone quick.” Their children, Claire and Ben, played soccer at Mendham, and Ben continued his career at Virginia Tech.
“What I try to do as a coach is get them to love the game as much as I do and carry it on,” Strong said. “That’s the legacy I’m trying to pass down, to keep that passion for (soccer), because it’s a great game.”