Status quo is a pretty impressive level for the Marvin Ridge boys soccer program, and just a week into the 2012 season, it appears that’s what the Mavericks are on the road to reaching. After two games, the Mavs are 2-0 with a pair of shutouts and currently ranked No. 7 in the state, according to eurosportscoreboard.com.
But in almost every way, things couldn’t be more different for the Waxhaw program.
For the first time since the school opened in 2007, the Mavs have taken to the pitch without the presence of coach Ray Fumo. With 30-plus years of coaching experience, including 27 in Union County, Fumo has stepped aside and handed the team’s reins to former Sun Valley coach Jason Zak.
It was a decision with seismic repercussions on the Union County soccer landscape, rivaled only by Fumo’s decision to start the first soccer program in the county (at Parkwood) following his migration to North Carolina from New Jersey in 1985. In his five years as Marvin Ridge’s boys coach alone, Fumo recorded a record of 86-16-6 and won the Class 3A state title in 2009. He also won a girls title the following year.
Fumo hasn’t fully retired. He said he plans on again coaching the Mavs girls team in the spring. But a seven-week summer trip to Australia, as well as the upcoming fall marriage of his son, Ray, left the longtime coach with a difficult decision to make about the boys season.
“It was really the question of commitment,” said Fumo. “If you expect the kids to be committed and you expect the players to be there over the summer, you need to be there as a coach, and you need to be able to dedicate yourself to the team and the sport.”
Fumo said there simply wasn’t enough time to do everything on his plate, which made this summer “time to step away.”
“My mind knew it was the right decision,” Fumo said. “It was tough in the heart because I’ve been doing it for a long time, and there’s a passion there that I still have. But it was the time to do it.”
There’s a difference, however, in simply stepping away versus putting forth the due diligence to find a successor you trust with the program you built. Last spring, Fumo made some calls regarding Zak and his willingness to leave his then-current position at Mint Hill’s Rocky River High.
Zak was in his second year with the Ravens after taking a five-year hiatus to earn his master’s degree in school administration. Before that, Zak had made a name for himself while coaching at Sun Valley and Mint Hill Independence.
Zak said he jumped at the chance.
“I had an opportunity to come over here, and it’s one of those offers that’s almost too good to refuse,” said Zak.
“It’s hard to replace a Fumo, though.”
Zak was officially introduced as the Mavs’ second head coach in August, and it was during a preseason team meeting that he made the returning players aware that Fumo’s departure would not signal a decline for the Marvin Ridge program.
“I think after he picked the team and he said, ‘I’m coming out to win,’ that’s when we all knew we were on the same level (as when Fumo was here),” said senior co-captain Dylan Griffin. “(Zak) said, ‘I want a state championship.’ After last year’s loss to Charlotte Catholic (in the fourth round of the state playoffs), that’s what we’re really going out for this year.”
Added fellow captain John Bruni: “The first time he talked to us, he sat us down for about 15 minutes. I knew from everything he said it was going to be a great season. We knew he was going to be one of those coaches that really cares about his team, that will push us to be our very best.”
The meeting also helped put Zak’s mind at ease.
“I’m not here to change traditions,” said Zak. “I just want to continue the program and maybe make it a little bit stronger – if that’s even possible. (The players’) goals were pretty much in step with what I had in mind, so we were all on the same page from that standpoint.”
There are plenty of differences in the two coaches, however. Senior Harry Hockham, the team’s third captain, said while both coaches are emotional, Zak expresses his feelings in more physical ways during games. The new coach also has a less-regimented practice structure. While Fumo’s practices were nearly identical day to day, Zak works on different things each time out with his new team.
Not better, said Hockham, but different.
“It’s been different, but it’s still the same level, still the same intensity,” said Hockham. “I think we can make a very deep run in the playoffs, if not pull it off again like we did my freshman year (in 2009).
“I think the program is just as good, it’s just a different format.”
The Mavs also have had to take the field without two of their key players from last season. Midfielders Tucker Axhoj and Clint Parker decided to forego their high school soccer seasons in favor of playing for their club teams, which this year will play in the fall.
Still, said Zak, the Mavs are among the most talented teams he’s coached.
“I’ve never had so much talent to work with,” said Zak. “It’s almost too much talent. For a long time, I just wished I could run 11 (players) deep. Just give me 11 that can play – I didn’t care about depth.
“Here, we’re 23 (players) deep, and they all can play. That’s the big difference.”
This season, Zak said Daniel Smith, Bruni and Will Green will man the forward spots while Hockham and Griffin will spearhead the defense, which will also include goalkeepers John Koehler and Andrew Vlasov. It won’t be easy to replace Axhoj and Parker in the midfield, but Zak said he has plenty of options at his disposal.
But with all the transitions and trust-building taking place, the players and the new coach needed proof of each side’s level of commitment to the program. That answer came, in large part, during the team’s 1-0 win over South Mecklenburg in the season opener on Aug. 16. One game is hardly definitive, but it was a great start, said Zak.
With the game scoreless at halftime, Zak spelled out to his team how the following 40 minutes would go and how the Mavs would eventually win the game.
“What was nice was, at the last minute, we executed it properly and finished,” Zak said. “We won based on how we said we were going to win, and I’m hoping that will lend itself to a buy-in (on the players’) part.”
So far, it appears as if it has. After all, said Hockham, this year, for all its changes, is going much like the years before it.
“Every year we think, ‘Oh, we’re not going to be as good,’ and then we think about the players we have and we’re like, ‘We’ll get there, we can go far again’” said Hockham. “Hopefully, this year we’ll get over Catholic and go all the way.”
Some things never change.