New Prairie to kick off varsity soccer programs
Soccer has been around at New Prairie for 20-some years, long before Athletic Director Ben Bachmann and boys coach Daniel Reffo were at the high school.
There is a wide range of takes on why the sport never graduated from club to varsity status before now, but, if Indiana continues to progress well with COVID-19 pandemic, boys and girls team will kick off in August.
"There was the New Prairie Soccer Club a long time ago," Reffo said. "It was co-ed for a while. From my understanding, there was a concern about the numbers. That might've been a valid argument 10 years ago, but you look at New Prairie's growth, the enrollment, it's gone up tremendously. I had 21 guys last year and the only one from football was the kickoff guy. There is no problem with numbers. (Superintendent Paul) White realized we needed to have a program at the high school level."
When Bachmann took over in 2018, he was told it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when soccer would make the next step.
"They had the foundation," he said. "They'd had the club for a while, which was one of the reasons they thought the sport was viable. There's interest. The athletes are already somewhat established. We're not pulling kids out of thin air. The coaches have already been involved. We just had to get our ducks in a row."
In addition to Reffo, Kasey Doorn, who has been running the club dating back to the mid-2000s, will coach the girls. Both teams have a full slate of varsity games and will compete in the Northern Indiana Conference. New Prairie will play in the smaller school division for the first four-year cycle. The rest of its slate was built with the intention of giving the teams a chance to compete. There will be a limited JV schedule.
"We're trying to start a program, so we didn't want to play a top-heavy schedule right away," Bachmann said.
New Prairie certainly did well to get coaches with as much experience as Doorn and Reffo, who has played or coached for over 30 years, dating back to when he was 7 or 8, living in Gloucester, Virginia.
"Soccer was not a huge thing," Reffo said. "It was an eye-opening experience. I'd never been part of a travel team and all of a sudden we're driving an hour, two hours, playing big-name towns. It was rough for the first while."
Reffo missed a year of high school after breaking both of his legs in a car accident going into his junior season. The injuries put him in a wheelchair for four months and casts for seven months. He eventually picked up the opportunity to walk on at Southeastern University in Florida, where he played for three years.
"Until the World Cup in '94, no one (in the U.S.) really knew anything about soccer," Reffo said. "You really just kicked the ball as hard as you could, then see if your fastest player could catch it."
After playing in some adult leagues, Reffo got into coaching for the first time, taking over a fledgling girls program at Fort Meade (Fla.) High School.
"The first year, we had seven girls," he said. "The second year, we had 19. The bad part was only two of them had ever played. It was a very difficult season. We were playing some really good schools and we just got hammered."
On the plus side, one of the players Reffo trained at a young age, Jackie Montes, went on to become a Florida player of the year. He and his wife Angela, a South Bend native, had two kids in the span of 18 months in 2008-9 so Reffo got out of coaching for a short time, only to return a few years later after they moved back to northern Indiana, Lakeland specifically. Reffo became boys coach at St. Adalbert School in South Bend, winning a pair of Inter City Catholic League titles. Several of his players went on to St. Joseph High School, which was Class 2A state runner-up last year.
Also the A.D. at St. Adalbert, Reffo came to New Prairie as a teacher in 2016, remaining in coaching with his kids, who are now involved with the Junior Irish program.
While Reffo is excited to kick off varsity play, the timing could have been a little better for the NP boys team. Nine seniors graduated and the roster will be largely comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
"It's too bad those kids never got a bit of recognition for their work, practice and time," Reffo said. "It could be a rough first year."
That inexperience is compounded by the practice constraints that come with the pandemic. The teams are doing virtual conditioning via Zoom meetings, but skill work has been limited to what players can do on their own.
"I wish we could've started last year. It would've made it a lot easier," Reffo said. "We're really going to have to dot our Is and cross our Ts (with practices). First and foremost, it's the safety of the athletes. People at a pay grade higher than mine pass down the rules and we'll just follow them. I'm concerned about how sedentary they've been. It's hard to get that fire lit again. We've just got to be careful with what we do or it could lead to injury."
The addition of soccer gives New Prairie 19 IHSAA-sanctioned sports. The only sport it doesn't offer is gymnastics, which only roughly 20 percent of Indiana high schools do.
"It's just another opportunity for New Prairie kids," Bachmann said.
Daniel Reffo Kasey Doorn